Big hair, big voices, big local talent

2011-03-04 14:02

What can you do in less than 10 seconds? A bad job of brushing your teeth? Butter a piece of toast? Change from one sequin-encrusted evening gown into another? I thought not.

But the cast of Dreamgirls can.

Says wardrobe mistress Sue Stepnick: “The changes are too fast to take things off a hanger. Dressers and hair people wait in the wings with the outfits on chairs and get the character changed in eight to 10 seconds.”

She’s standing in a warehouse in Joburg surrounded by rails and rails of outfits for each of the members of the 27-strong cast of the musical.

American Stepnick is in South Africa to hand over the wardrobe duties to a team of locals lead by matriarch Maud Kemmey.

Together they have been altering costumes and remaking some for the musical’s South African run, which starts on Sunday, March 13.

While we were chatting, Stepnick was painting a pair of shoes lime green. The pair worn by the actor in the American version were a different shoe size.

The stitchers, as they are called, work from a bible given to them by the show’s costume designer, William Ivey Long, a five-time Tony Award winner who was brought in to put together this post-movie version of the Dreamgirls stage musical.

The designer is so particular, explains Stepnick, that though most of the audience wouldn’t even notice, he specifies every accessory of the costume from the cuff links to whether the belt buckle should be oval or rectangular.

This version of the stage show toured the US in 2009 before heading overseas, and it has finally arrived in South Africa.

Stepnick says: “My job is to maintain the integrity of the show. We work from the bible and every show is worth the patrons’ money. One is not better than another around the world.”

She and Kemmey’s South African team, which includes two of her daughters, have their work cut out for them as they have more than 600 pieces to account for – including every bow tie and cuff link – and they have to get them on to the right character in less time than it takes most of us to lace up our trainers.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the same warehouse, Joy Marcelle is also handing over to a South African team. She is in charge of the show’s incredible collection of wigs – 251 of them.

“Dreamgirls is 60s and 70s fashion. It is a glamour show,” she says.

Marcelle and the team who will take over the grooming of the wigs are surrounded by coifs that span two decades of style – from the towering beehive to the bob and on to the full-on Disco-era Afro. It’s quite a sight and each wig is labelled with a character’s name, as well as the appropriate act and scene.

The same information is repeated on the wig stand.

Like the wardrobe department, there’s a style guide for the wigs too, and each of the seven-member team has to learn how to keep the wigs in tiptop condition.

Organisation is key as, Marcelle explains, most of the wigs are needed on stage in threes or fours, and with such blink-and-you-miss-it costume changes everyone needs to have their hairpieces in a row.

Marcelle, who is passionate about her craft, says that every wig is important – though the towering, Baroque-style powdered wigs from Phantom of the Opera get a special mention when asked about some of the more fantastical wigs she’s made.

She says she learned wig making and styling as a way to pay her way through college, but “once I got my degree, I went right back to doing this”.

The secret to great wigs, she says, is research, research, research and passion for your craft. Before working on any wig for any show Marcelle spends months looking at the history that surrounds it.

Her effervescent sense of humour is ever-present as she chats, as is her love for what she does.

That passion for work is everywhere in the huge cavernous rehearsal space, where ringing laughter, organised bustling about, soaring voices and sweaty dancers are the most enduring impressions.

While their costumes and hairstyles are lovingly cared for and organised with military precision, the three Dreams – Lindiwe Bungane, Candida Mosoma and Tracy-Lee Oliver – are next door with the rest of the cast being put through their paces by the music head honcho from the American creative team.

The three young women, who were cast last year amid a huge audition call that saw 800 hopefuls from across the country, have been hard at work for months learning how to move, how to sing and how to pull off a musical of this scale.

“We haven’t been allowed to watch other stage versions of Dreamgirls and we’ve been busy with workshops for six months now. The director gives us guidance, but he wants an authentic performance from us,” says Bungane.

Oliver adds: “We obviously physically look like the characters for costumes and fit a profile, but we are original, not carbon copies of the other cast.”

Of the three women, Mosoma, who stars as Lorrell, is the most familiar to South African musical fans.

She has previously starred in Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as well as The Lion King and home-grown musicals Shaka Zulu and Jock of the Bushveld.

For both Oliver (Deena) and Bungane (Effie), Dreamgirls is their first big musical.
Both say that they have been stretched in wholly new ways to get performance ready.

And ready they are, judging by Bungane belting out And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.

It is the song that made Jennifer Hudson a household name in the 2006 film version of the musical, which was supposed to be a vehicle for Beyoncé Knowles, who played Deena.

From the film, Listen, co-written by Knowles, has been included in this post-film version of the stage musical to please fans of the film.

Taking the role of Curtis, the used car salesman who takes the Dreams and turns them into superstars, is Aubrey Poo.

Poo is known to TV audiences for his role as Pelo Mahale in Muvhango, but he is no stranger to the stage, having starred in Soweto Story and Rent. He also stars in the upcoming film Winnie, alongside Hudson.

Bjorn Blignaut, a former Idols top six finalist, will be filling the substantial shoes of James Early Thunder, a character immortalised on film by Eddie Murphy.

The ensemble is made up of many well-known faces from the screen and stage, and Trudy Fredericks is dance captain again, having performed the same duty for the hit Mamma Mia! last year.

Dreamgirls first opened on Broadway 20 years ago and was nominated for 13 Tony Awards. It won five and one of them was the coveted best musical award. When the original cast recorded an album of the music, it won two Grammys – one for another Jennifer, Jennifer Holliday, who played Effie in the first run of the musical.

Apparently, American producer John Breglio was blown away during the South African audition process by the sheer depth of our talent.

Breglio is a theatrical lawyer turned Broadway producer whose first full-time producing gig was a revival of A Chorus Line.

Dreamgirls is his second venture. His first sent it to South Korea, where it boasted an all-Korean cast and was a big hit.

Along with his South African producing partner, Hazel Feldman, he’ll be hoping to capture the imagination of local audiences with this reimagining of the glitzy era that took the music of black America to the top of the charts.

» Dreamgirls runs at The Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg from March 13 and at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre from June 8. Book at Computicket

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