WHERE: Apollo Theater, 253 W. 125th St., through Dec. 12
INFO: $36-$106; 212-307-4100; apollotheater.org
BOTTOM LINE: young talents in bright road-show revival
How smart to kick off a new touring revival of "Dreamgirls" with a few weeks at the Apollo Theater.
Of course, both the 1981 show and the 2006 movie begin with a talent contest at the legendary Harlem landmark, which for 75 years has been introducing newcomers and showcasing stars through the ups and downs of West 125th Street. With a gifted company of virtual unknowns, the musical plays with and within the wonderfully restored theater as if both were forever young.
The road company - scheduled to tour this country, then South Africa and Britain - is the first New York version without the show's late creator, Michael Bennett. Robert Longbottom's capable staging almost makes us forget his awful work in "Bye Bye Birdie," though his choreography, especially for the men, is lackluster and a few of the pivotal scenes (for example, "Steppin' to the Bad Side") feel undercooked.
But producer John Breglio, executor of Bennett's estate, has involved a top design team - including original set designer Robin Wagner - in this reduced traveling edition. Instead of dancing banks of lights, there are LED panels that cannily reflect the making and the unmaking of a Supremes-like girl group through a dozen years of shifting hearts and musical/market styles. William Ivey Long's costumes - almost 600 of them - transform the look with quick-change shifts of fortunes and the times.
Most important, this "Dreamgirls" has the young singing actors it needs to deliver both the music and the meaning of the Tom Eyen-Henry Krieger score. Moya Angela, as the most talented but overweight Effie, takes hold of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" with such power and subtle phrasing that we're forced to stop comparing her with Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson, who made their names on this role and this song.
Syesha Mercado, who placed third on "American Idol" in 2008, grows beautifully from backup player to glamour-girl as Deena, the Diana Ross character, and Adrienne Warren has a special warmth as the third of the trio. And, surely, we have not heard the last of Chester Gregory, who plays Jimmy Early, the quasi-James Brown character, with a witty pout, a debonair growl and what may well be springs bouncing inside his knees. Whenever the story moves somewhere without Jimmy, he is missed.