Opening Nights

DREAMGIRLS

The 5th Avenue; ends Sun., Feb. 29

Anyone interested in this ersatz Supremes musical, first performed in 1981, is waiting patiently for Effie, the big-boned, big-voiced gal who's just been ousted from the Dreams by her unscrupulous manager/ lover, to wail "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in a ravaged protest that brings down the curtain on Act I. It's a song that grabs you by the nape of the neck and shakes you good and hard for about four minutes. Those four minutes made a star out of Broadway's original Effie, Jennifer Holliday, who still sings it at every public appearance; it's that kind of song, in that kind of show, and everything else is gravy.

When Frenchie Davis, the ousted American Idol vet now cunningly cast as Effie, sings The Song, she's navigating her way through one of the all-time great vocal workouts, and you have to admire the fact that her ingratiating voice never falters. When Holliday sings "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," however, she is telling you she's not going—and you believe it, because the paint is peeling off the wall behind you. It's the difference between merely singing a song and inhabiting it. Not to slight Davis for not being her predecessor, but that distinction unfortunately characterizes the rest of this production: It's hitting most of the notes, but it's never inside the music.

I have to blame this on director Mark S. Hoebee, because though his show is egregiously underproduced, it certainly doesn't skimp on the lead performers. In addition to the appealing Davis, who has charm to spare, the Dreams are top-drawer: Ramona Keller, as the naive Lorrell, has a great vocal bit in which she finally sticks it to her married James Brown-like lover, Jimmy Early (Harrison White); and Angela Robinson makes a sympathetic Diana Ross figure out of Deena, the group's eventual diva. All of the men—especially White and David Jennings as the Dreams' smoothly scurrilous Svengali—are terrific. But the production is finally listless because Hoebee hasn't given it a convincing pulse of its own. You don't believe that these people would be moving and talking and singing like this if you weren't watching (and Brenda Braxton's gauche choreography turns would-be Motown moves into zero-karat Solid Gold shimmy). It's hard to accept being simply satisfied with such a long-proven crowd pleaser when you were hoping to be thrilled. STEVE WIECKING

THE DEVIL & BILLY MARKHAM

Re-bar; ends Sat., Feb. 28

Anyone who grew up with Where the Sidewalk Ends will recognize immediately the cadences and ribald humor propelling this Faustian fable of a wily urchin going pecker-to-pecker with bad old Beelzebub: The Devil & Billy Markham is a one-man play adapted from a Shel Silverstein poem first published by Playboy in 1979. The language jumps with humor and bluesy pathos, piling up in imagistic absurdity, all in the service of those familiar Silverstein concerns—the fallibility of human nature, the slapstick of compound error, the good in bad and vice versa. In a sense, the piece is quintessential Silverstein, a distillation of everything that made the poet tick. It's wildly funny, even silly, yet just below the surface runs a river of real sadness and a search for hope that isn't ever corny.

Bringing this stuff to the stage was a great idea, but the real joy of this show is watching actor Nathan Smith completely inhabit the bawdy spirit of Silverstein—he simply owns the material. With nothing more than a mop in hand, Smith fills the stage with an energy and a joy that perfectly reflect the imaginative surfeit of Silverstein's language. (It is a testament to Smith's talent that said mop is made to double convincingly, by turns, as a pool cue, a roasting spit, a guitar, and Billy's wife.) Most impressive is Smith's knack for physical comedy. He has a fluid grace. Late in the play, he mimics swinging down from heaven on a rope, and in the subtlety of his gestures—as well as the patience he shows in allowing this moment to play out—Smith somehow becomes one of those line drawings that accompany most of Silverstein's poems.

The actor is accompanied onstage by musician Robert Blake, who provides a continuous minimal soundtrack with his six-string. And that's about it. It's amazing how well it all works. This is a fantastic show, a lesson in simplicity and vision. RICHARD MORIN

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