Charity Dawson counts the classic 1981 “Dreamgirls” as her favorite Broadway musical and said she would have performed any role just to be in it.
“I’d seen it probably 15 times,” she said.
“It’s so clever. And moving. I told myself that if I ever got a chance to be in it, I wouldn’t care what they wanted me to do,” said Dawson, a Tulsa native who understudied the lead of Celie in a national tour of “The Color Purple.”
But she didn’t have to settle for leftovers when producers were casting for this tour of “Dreamgirls,” which Theater League brings to Wichita’s Century II for three performances this week.
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Dawson plays Effie White, the full-figured, full-voiced lead of a fledgling Motown girl group called the Dreamettes — not unlike the Supremes or the Shirelles — who is passed over for superstardom because of backstage politics but ultimately finds her own voice, as well as satisfaction and success.
As Effie, Dawson gets to belt out the show’s biggest tunes: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing.”
And she couldn’t be happier — or more exhausted.
“The role is huge. It’s a marathon,” Dawson said by phone from a stop in Alaska. “Right after the show, I feel exhilarated like I could turn right around and do it again. But a few minutes later, my body crashes, and I know I have to rest and recoup.”
Dawson grew up singing but didn’t find her passion for theater until high school.
“ ‘The Wiz’ was my first show,” she said. “I just knew after that.”
She still likes to perform in indy/folk venues when not in a scripted show. But she said she can identify with Effie’s insecurities about showbiz.
“Effie is very complicated. She has a voice that won’t quit, but she has experienced a lot of hurt in her life. She develops a hard shell for protection, but she is really a loving and forgiving person. I love her passion, but I think what I like the most about her is her transformation, her arc of self-acceptance,” Dawson said. “That allows her to move forward with her life.”
“Dreamgirls,” with music by Henry Krieger and book/lyrics by Tom Eyen, ran for four years on Broadway in its original incarnation and won six Tony Awards. It made stars out of its original cast members Jennifer Holliday, Loretta Devine and Sheryl Lee Ralph and spawned a 2006 movie version with Jennifer Hudson (who won an Oscar), Beyonce Knowles and Anika Noni Rose.
Memorable songs, besides Effie’s two showstoppers, include “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” “Cadillac Car” and, of course, the title tune. Also included is “Listen,” written for the movie but now added to the stage version.
The show obviously was inspired by the sometimes turbulent life and times of such R&B legends as Diana Ross and the Supremes, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Motown genius Berry Gordy. But creators always denied any real-life connections to ward off lawsuits.
Houston native Jasmin Richardson plays Deena Jones, the Diana Ross-type character who replaces Effie as the group’s glamorous lead in a bid for superstardom.
“You can watch Deena grow from a young, immature girl into a sophisticated, glamorous star,” said Richardson, who previously performed in “Aida” and “All Shook Up.” “I love her drive. Where Effie was the voice, Deena is the brains.”
“I (previously) played Michelle, who becomes the newest member when Effie drops out,” Richardson said. “But when I auditioned for this tour, I went specifically for Miss Deena because she is all about logic. I am all about finding out how to make things work, so I connected with Deena.”
Deena’s glamour and the glitz from more than 20 costume changes was just a bonus, Richardson said with a laugh: “Who wouldn’t want to be fabulous every day?”
Rounding out the original Dreamettes is Mary Searcy as Lorrell, the youngest, who is both the comic relief and the optimistic heart of the show.
“Lorrell is the one that audiences can most relate to,” said Searcy, a classically trained soprano from Cleveland. “She’s funny and lovable and happy. She has most of the punch lines.”
Searcy originally planned to go into opera but broadened her horizons to musical theater in college. She played Deena in a Baltimore production of “Dreamgirls.”
“Lorrell is a ball of fire. She’s just as glamorous as Deena, but she’s a lot more fun,” Searcy said. “I don’t think I’m like Lorrell in real life. I have to dig deep to get her attitude.”
But Searcy said she can identify with Lorrell’s growing up emotionally and facing the truth about love and life.
“Lorrell falls for a married man and clings to the idea of love. She hopes for a relationship even as he lies to her. She finally has to grow up and see things as they really are,” Searcy said. “I’ve gone through my own emotional journey, so I understand her.”
Theater League next brings “Stomp” to Wichita on April 9 and 10. Its 2013-2014 season kicks off in October with “Million Dollar Quartet.”