A NIGHT OF MUSIC!!!
By Todd Gilchrist
On February 27, 2006, Dreamworks Pictures offered journalists an opportunity to visit the set of “Dreamgirls”, the big-screen adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical, starring Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, and Jennifer Hudson. The visit included a glimpse at the expansive set design, an unofficial chronology of the characters’ lives, and a collection of costume designs that the actors wear in the film. Additionally, Blackfilm.com was treated to a live performance of one of the film’s show-stopping musical numbers, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” featuring Murphy, Knowles and Hudson.
Traffic was heavy on the unexpectedly rainy Monday evening in downtown Los Angeles, but spirits were high as journalists found protection from the elements beneath an enormous tent. Stepping past the sign-in table, the shelter - much less the spread - was welcoming: buffet tables offered various gastrointestinal delights, small displays on left and right offered insights into the production, and a centerpiece bar offered spirits to weary journalists. Arriving just after 7pm, when the presentation was scheduled to start, there was scarcely time to steal a breadstick and a beer before director Bill Condon (“Kinsey”) took the stage to introduce the talented production team.Unfortunately, recording devices were prohibited, though some of the more determined journalists
smuggled them in anyway. But suffice it to say that Condon, an Oscar nominee (for writing “Chicago”) and winner (for “Gods and Monsters”), spoke eloquently about the contributions of choreographer Fatima Robertson, composer Henry Krieger, set designer John Myhre, and costume designer Sharen Davis. Thankfully, further evidence of their collective expertise surrounded us at every angle: on one side of the tent, scale models announced set-piece performances inside Caesar’s Palace and other locations, while on the other, costumes worn by Knowles and Hudson stood at glamorous attention like ghosts of Supremes past.
By the stage, a third display offered various period set pieces; among the props was a poster of James “Thunder” Early (Murphy), which closely resembled early one-sheets of James Brown, and an album cover by then-solo artist Deena, whose “One Night Only” borrowed more than a few hedonistic pages from the likes of Donna Summer. But before all of this material could be properly examined, the good folks at Dreamworks ushered us into the Orpheum Theater where the official “set visit” was to take place.
The audience, of whom there was more than 100 people, sat down quickly and settled in for what we expected would be a stage show of unprecedented energy. The set-up, which we briefly watched before entering, offered only the most threadbare of introductions: Murphy, Foxx and an undisclosed third male performer danced in an empty alleyway to the a capella strains of “Steppin’ To the Bad Side.” But before there was time to ask for more information, Knowles, Hudson and fellow Dream-girl Anika Noni Rose took their positions on stage, the camera moved into position, and the show started.
The performance was pretty impressive: though Murphy bailed out at the last minute, requiring a replacement in the form of a choreographer who mimicked his moves and vocal performance (via prerecorded music), the girls found their marks perfectly, and the background dancers - an impressive phalanx of besuited hoofers - expanded the lip-synced routine to the stuff of live spectacle. At the end of the number, Jamie Foxx joined them on stage to offer a few words of encouragement - “isn’t it great to see Eddie Murphy excited about something?” he quipped - and then sent us off with Dreamgirls dancing in our minds. But the crowd’s appetite was merely whetted, not satisfied, and we retired to the tent once again to pore over the set designs, the costumes, and the props we didn’t have time to view prior to the start of the show.
Though a handful of the stars took time to interact and talk to various members of the press - including Knowles, whose most impressive accessory was the 7-foot-6-inch bodyguard who loomed over any prospective interviewer - there was little chance to talk in depth about the demands of recreating the world of 1960s and ‘70s soul. But with the film arriving in theaters no sooner than fall of 2006, Blackfilm.com will no doubt enjoy additional opportunities to explore the world of Dreamgirls, and speak at greater length to its talented cast. Stay tuned to Blackfilm.com for more news, interviews and previews of this and other exciting productions!