Dreamgirls Musical comedy with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger. Directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett.
If the lights along the Great White Way are burning brighter this week, it's not just the holiday season. This town has a glamorous, glittering new musical. ''Dreamgirls,'' at the Imperial Theater, is a dream of a show. Broadway in italics. Director-choreographer Michael Bennett and his collaborators have created a work of brilliant theatricality and emotional impact. Conceptually and artistically, ''Dreamgirls'' extends the limits of the American musical, that unique integration of all the playmaking arts.
Like Bennett's ''A Chorus Line,'' now in its seventh year, the Tom Eyen-Henry Krieger saga tells a behind-scenes tale. At the Imperial, however, the concern is with the world of singing stars and groups - from rhythm and blues to rock-and-roll, from soul to pop. The ''Dreamgirls'' group recalls the Supremes. Mr. Eyen's libretto, tightly interwoven with his and Mr. Krieger's score, centers on the collective and individual careers of three Chicago girls (Jennifer Holliday, Loretta Devine, and Sheryl Lee Ralph) who come to New York to launch their singing careers as the Dreamettes. They lose the fixed Apollo Theater talent contest but acquire as manager a former car salesman, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Ben Harney).
The wheeler-dealer impresario signs the trio as backup singers for soul star James Thunder Early (Cleavant Derricks). Soon rechristened the Dreams, the three Chicagoans and their ''Dreamgirls'' theme song are climbing the charts and making their mark in the glitzy world of ballrooms and nightclubs.
Mr. Eyen has devised a plot twist for almost every fantastic costume change (a Theoni V. Aldredge feast for the eye). Effie Melody White (Miss Holliday) is replaced by Deena Jones (Miss Ralph) as the Dreams' lead singer and then dropped entirely from the trio. The conniving Taylor tries to thwart her solo comeback with a payola broadside that backfires.
It occasionally becomes a question whether Bennett and his collaborators are going to be able to sort out all the breathless plots and subplots in time for the final curtain. But sort them out they do, in part because song and even recitative carry the action from scene-song to song-scene. Four light towers and two hydraulic light bridges - the combined work of Robin Wagner and Tharon Musser - are choreographed into the constant movement of the eye-filling spectacle.
Yet with all its mechanical artifice, ''Dreamgirls'' is more than a piece of prodigious showmanship. The ups and downs of show biz, its heady success, its heartbreak and humiliation, are made appealing and moving. Indispensable to the appeal, of course, are the ingeniously incorporated musical numbers and the marvelous performance by a superb company of singing actors and backup dancers. Outstanding among several songs that could be mentioned is ''And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going,'' sung by Miss Holliday with shattering effect to climax act one.
The excellent cast of ''Dreamgirls'' includes Obba Babatunde as Effie's songwriting brother, Deborah Burrell as her replacement in the trio, and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Early's discarded manager. In addition to his portrayal of the soul singer, Mr. Derricks arranged the vocals. Harold Wheeler was musical supervisor and orchestrator. The pulsing performance is conducted by Yolanda Segovia. Otts Munderloh was the sound designer and Ted Azar hair-styled what must be the most lavishly bewigged show on Broadway. Cheers to them all.