By Ron Fassler . . .
If you’re a fan of Seth Rudetsky, Broadway musical savant and raconteur par excellence, then you’re familiar with his particular worship for 1982’s Dreamgirls. Not only was he “obsessed” with the original Broadway production as a teenager but was also responsible for a 2001 concert which featured the show’s entire score (it had been shorted for its Original Cast Recording). The 2-CD live set is a must for every theatre enthusiast’s library. A charity benefit for the Actor’s Fund (now the Entertainment Community Fund), it raised a million dollars and gathered such star power as Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, Norm Lewis and Lillias White to sing the hell out of it (and throw in Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell for good measure, too).
Last night at the Café Carlyle, as part of his new residency, Rudetsky gathered cast members from near and far to pay tribute to Dreamgirls from its first Broadway production to national and international tours, with stories from its conception to its status as a full-blown phenomenon. Picking choice numbers from Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s iconic score made for a musical theatre education of the first rank, in addition to hearing songs that pierce the heart in a few breathtaking interpretations.
Highlighting the evening was Sharon Catherine Brown who was entrusted with the leading role of Effie by the original creative team of director/choreographer Michael Bennett and co-choreographer Michael Peters. Age twenty at the time, to hear her belt out her songs in their original keys forty years later was beyond exciting. She was joined by Darius de Haas, also a Dreamgirls veteran of many productions, including playing C.C. in the 2001 benefit concert. He was even given Effie’s sensational “I Am Changing” ballad last night, which he totally nailed. Filling out this talented trio was Natalie Wachen, who has portrayed both Deena and Lorrelle over the years and, due to the last minute drop out of Tony Award nominee Lilli Cooper, did double — even triple duty — as she sang the part of Michelle as well.
To add to the festivities, Brenda Braxton was in the house. A member of the original cast, she was also the Dance Captain for the original Dreamgirls and co-directed/co-choreographed the 2001 benefit. After verifying facts all night long, she was finally brought up on stage and her reminiscences were funny and profound. Also in the house was Aisha de Haas, sister to Darius and another Dreamgirls alumni. In fact, it was this kind of congeniality that made the show so intimate as well as refreshingly off-the-cuff. You could also call it under-rehearsed, which everyone referred to it at one point or another. But that was part of its unique charm. It felt as if friends were gathered in someone’s living room and (perhaps after many drinks) got up and performed their favorite songs from one of their favorite musicals. That vibe created a “sit back, relax, and enjoy the show” vibe that was infectious.
There was even a “bonus track,” in that so many of the cast (and audience) had all appeared in Rent at some time or other, we were treated to Sharon Catherine Brown (going back to a role she’s played many times) letting loose on the solo in “Seasons of Love.” A most memorable moment came by way of Brown and deHaas’s rendition of “Family,” my personal favorite in the score, what with it never failing to bring out the tissues (“We are a family, like a giant tree, branching out toward the sky. We are a family, we’re so much more than just you and I”).
Saving the best for last, and not at all in show order, the night ended with the Act One Dreamgirls Finale, which climaxes in the legendary “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” As he’d been doing throughout the evening, Rudetsky lent some vocals of a high range (they’re female parts, after all) and this also is when Wachen channeled three of the Dreams (Deena, Lorrelle and Michelle). The fight scene preceding the number was fierce and Brown did not disappoint. What a powerful instrument she has! It was also a joy that, from my seat location, I was able to watch Rudetsky play the song with dexterity, sensitivity and his own special brand of showmanship.
Rudetsky’s next scheduled performance at the Carlyle is March 13th. He announced from the stage last night that he is very likely to do the same show again, though it will undoubtedly not be the same, considering the affectionate lightheartedness and improvisation in which he luxuriates. I’ll bet some audience members not only will tell their friends about it but might be tempted to see it again for themselves, especially since evenings of this kind of fun and craftsmanship don’t come along all that often.
Seth Rudetsky at Café Carlyle took place February 20th at Café Carlyle (35 East 75th Street, Madison Avenue at 75th) https://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/dining/cafe-carlyle
Photos: David Andrako