Since the trailer hit theaters last year and its critical explosion at this summer’s Cannes film festival (for a 20-minute preview, no less), “Dreamgirls” left fans of the original musical salivating for its opening. After all the hype, the final product is inevitably disappointing – but even in its missteps, the film is one of this year’s finest.

Jessica Boullion
“Together, we can turn Motown into Gotown.” (Courtesy of DreamWorks)

The movie focuses on the rise of Detroit-based girl group The Dreamettes. Led by defiant diva Effie (Jennifer Hudson, TV’s “American Idol”) and backed by the gorgeous Denna (singer Beyonce Knowles) and adorable Loreal (Anika Noni Rose, “Surviving Christmas”), the girls are offered the chance to sing background for R&B crooner James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, “I Spy”) thanks to the help of conniving car-salesmen-turned-music-tycoon Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx, “Ray”). From there the Dreamettes leave Early, shorten their name to the Dreams and watch their careers take off – with varied consequences for all involved that highlight the backstabbing inherent in the music industry.

“Dreamgirls” especially shines compared to the recent string of musical adaptation flops like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent,” but after its gorgeous first act, the kinetic pacing of the film becomes a problem. With a running time of more than two hours, nine years worth of events pass so fast it takes a while to become attached to the characters. Problems arise when the cast ages too quickly and their personal relationships sour before there’s enough connection made with the audience. Academy Award-winning writer/director Condon (“Kinsey,” writer of “Chicago”) fills the void with enough knee-tapping choreography from music-video maven Fatima and dazzling backdrops to make up for its problems .

The film undoubtedly triumphs with Hudson. When she’s ousted from the Dreams, she responds with an incredibly moving rendition of “I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” and there’s enough power and subtle rage in her voice that any formal problems with the film are forgotten, if only momentarily. There should be no comparisons to Jennifer Holiday’s renowned performance as Effie in the original 1981 Broadway production, but Hudson owns the character with a fierce grip – a feat somewhat absent with the rest of the cast.

Take Jamie Foxx’s sly performance as the snake who betrays Effie and shatters the original Dreams. He doesn’t shine the way he did in “Ray,” but it’s not because of poor acting. Foxx’s understated Curtis is actually effective as he slowly transforms from boyish car salesmen to sneaky record producer.

Supporting players Anika Noni Rose and Eddie Murphy are also strong, but like Foxx, they make the most of thin roles. Even with short screen time, Murphy conjures an intensity that’s been absent in his recent work. His flailing has-been Thunder Early is at times hilarious and later heartbreaking. Tony Award-winner Rose’s glorious turn as Loreal, Murphy’s long-suffering mistress, is missed whenever she’s forced back into the shadows of Knowles and Hudson.

Although it’s easy to complain about the thinly drawn characters, it’s still hard to deny the genuine joy of watching the actors giving their all in every scene – both singing and acted. “Dreamgirls” isn’t meant to be a groundbreaking dramatic achievement, but a roaring confection of music and glittering costumes. Like the original musical, the only person you should be rooting for by the film’s end is Effie.

“Dreamgirls” suffers, indeed, from flaws in its adaptation. As with many filmed stage musicals, sometimes it just doesn’t work. But the passion and energy put into the production practically spills from the screen and into the audience, and that’s already much more than can be said of its recent competition.

Like stage, like screen

After a special debut over break, The Michigan Theater will continue to guarantee all seating for “Dreamgirls,” emulating the experience of going to the original musical. Regular ticket prices apply to all performances. This weekend, it will show at:

Friday: 7:15 p.m., 10 p.m.
Saturday: 4:15 p.m., 7:15 p.m., 10 p.m.
Sunday: 3 p.m., 6:15 p.m., 9 p.m.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

At the Showcase and Quality 16

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