Dreamgirls at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Jacques Benovil | 12/8/2010, 6:38 p.m.

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A night of a Thousand Young Stars
Opening night for the production of Dreamgirls at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown was met with cheers, tears and rousing applause by a captivated audience.

Family members, friends, teachers, classmates, alumni and future students filled the Ellington Theatre, Tue., Dec. 2 to see months and hundreds of hours of hard work come to life.

No one left disappointed
The 1981 Broadway musical, Dreamgirls, best known for its signature song "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" made famous by Tony Award-winning actress Jennifer Holliday and revived in 2006 by Jennifer Hudson on the Silver Screen, recounts the story of the all-girl group, the Dreamettes from Detroit, who are determined to make it in show business. The group consists of two sisters and one lifelong friend. The trio, confront all of the back room dealings, lies and deceit typically associated with the music industry. The women soon begin to realize that this business has almost nothing to do with the music as much as it has to do with appearance, race and audience appeal.

The production was a collaborative effort that involved Ellington students, faculty and numerous creative consultants. Marta Reid Stewart, chair of the Museum Studies Department, asked her students to create an interactive gallery installation that would reflect the time period that Dreamgirls takes place during the 1960s. Guests who entered the Ellington Gallery on opening night en route to the Theatre found themselves in a completely different era: Black and White televisions reigned, checkered pattern faux wood tile floors were all the rage and a record player could be found in the majority of American households.

For example, the installation, "The Living Room" depicts a 1960's or early 70's decor - a space where families came together to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, an American variety show on Sundays that featured live performances by The Supremes and other acts by all-girl and male groups. Juwan Womack, a first-year museum studies student, designed the installation.

On opening night, 'Jebby' showed up to infuse life into the installation. He donned a drab olive green military jacket, denim trousers and work boots. He sported an Afro and comfortably planted himself on the upholstered couch. Although 'Jebby' was there to see the performance, he unknowingly became a part of the interactive installation.

In the lobby, while family, friends, faculty and other patrons of the arts waited for the theatre doors to open, the hustle and bustle of last minute preparations added to the evening's excitement. The air was filled with the thrill of anticipation that something special was about to happen.

If you didn't already know where you were -- you would have thought you were attending an opening night at The National Theatre or The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets were being handed out through will call, Playbills were being distributed and people sold glossy Dreamgirl magazines. Others donned t-shirts that read, "Dreamgirls, The Duke Ellington School of the Arts Presents Dreamgirls."

Armed with a notepad, pen and camera I patiently waited with the masses for this theatrical thrill ride to begin. The doors open and the theatre fills, the orchestra can be heard tuning up before the curtain rises, the house lights dim and Principal Rory Pullens enters from stage right.

The audience's applause resonated throughout the theatre.

"Four months and two hundred fifty students later we accomplished something we've never done before," Pullens said.

The principal continued to talk about the elaborate costumes, the 100 wigs that would be worn, the incredible set design and the 6,000 plus tickets that sold prior to opening night. He exits stage right and the spotlight goes down.

The Magic Begins.

The music starts, actors appear on stage and the performance gets underway. The audience is magically transported back in time with song, dance and of course, elaborate costume changes. The center stage rotates and portrays both the front and back stage. The performers masterfully glide with this moving stage thanks to well-choreographed fluid movements that create one continuous motion. The pace of the performance was like that of an express train that makes only a few stops along the way with no delays. If you looked away for a second, you could miss something visually spectacular.

The cast was energetic and the electricity of the excitement on stage transferred to spellbound guests. Each act and scene, costume change and dance routine in response to various songs, was well received by an engaged audience that responded with laughter, applause and minutes before intermission moved to tears. Ellington anticipates everything and tissues were handed out as Victoria Davis who plays Effie White bellowed out an emotionally charged, powerfully moving, tear jerking rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going."

Sniffles followed along with a standing ovation. The house lights went up.


Dreamgirls is directed by Lynda Gravtt, choreographed by Charles Augins, Musical Director e'Marcus Harper with Conductor Isaac Daniel, Jr., Set Designer Dan Conway, Costumer Designer Karen Perry, Lighting Designer Curtis V. Hodge, Producers Tia Powell Harris and Kenneth Johnson and Executive Producer Rory L. Pullens.

This production of Dreamgirls is truly a work of art and showcases the hard work and dedication of the talented, young and the forever young at heart. This collective effort resulted in one amazing theatrical production.

Dreamgirls, the musical, tells the story about how hard it is to make it in show business. For students at Ellington, art remains the shining star that imitates life. The play, has served as a learning experience that illustrates to both students and audiences alike that if you work hard and persevere, all things are possible.

Three hundred eighty eight photos later, Duke Ellington School of the Arts has once again convinced me that their long tradition of excellence in areas that include theatrical, visual arts, museum studies, instrumental music, vocal music, technical design and production, literary media and communications and dance is an arts program well worth supporting.

Dreamgirls at Duke Ellington School of the Arts runs through Dec. 18.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 202-337-4825.