AT THE NATIONAL Theater, dazzling "Dreamgirls" works like a dream. Directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, the innovative popera sums up the sights, sounds and social scene of the '60s and '70s.
"Dreamgirls," which took six Tony Awards in 1982, freely adapts elements from the stories of the Supremes and rest of the Motown roster to tell a larger story: the canny use of soul and pop by blacks to gain entry into the American mainstream.
Without the dominating presence of Broadway star Jennifer Holliday, the focus disperses to the superb ensemble, and it is clearer that if "Dreamgirls" is the story of any one character, it is sly, slick Svengali Curtis Taylor (read: Motown founder Berry Gordy).
Ever the opportunist, car salesman Curtis latches onto the Dreamettes, a teenage singing trio, at a talent contest and gets them a gig as backing singers for soul star James Thunder Early (played by Herbert L. Rawlings Jr. as a hybrid of James Brown and Little Richard).
In a spiraling series of shady machinations, Curtis builds a pop dynasty: He steals Early from his manager by landing him unheard-of bookings in all-white clubs, then launches the Dreamettes on their own with a new look and sound, curtly ousting longtime leader (and lover) Effie White. Effie lacks the streamlined shape and creamy crossover sound Curtis deems necessary for the repackaged, homogenized Dreams, who will assail the white airwaves -- and help change the racial attitudes of a nation.
Krieger and Eyen have their Motown down with this score, an R&B/soul/pop/disco pastiche that distills the sounds of the times and illuminates plot and characters. The show's emblematic song is not Holliday's showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," but "Cadillac Car," a capsule history of how to make it in America. In an ironic montage, the tune becomes a hit for black artists, but is quickly stolen by a whitebread pop star (read: Pat Boone, Elvis).
Bennett has given the roadshow more dancing and motion, and fluidly dissolves each scene into the next -- the ovation for one showstopper becomes the welcoming applause for another.
Thanks to the team of superior designers, as the music evolves, so do the dances, costumes and hairstyles. Robin Wagner's ingenious, minimalist set consists of simple drops and four mobile columns of stage lights that whirl and glide to whisk us through 20 locales, from backstage at the Apollo to the lipsynched taping of a TV appearance, to the glamorous kitsch of a Las Vegas nightclub. Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes and Ted Azar's wigs are a witty tour of the fashion frivolities of the '60s and '70s.
The performances are fine across the board. As demi-diva Effie, Sharon Brown lacks Holliday's gale force but compensates with nuance and acting polish. Weyman Thompson is a sexy, snaky Curtis; Deborah Burrell is a dazzler as the mannequin-like Deena Jones; and Arnetia Walker is funny and feline as Lorrell Robinson, the sassiest Dream.
DREAMGIRLS -- At the National Theater through June 7.