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The stage revival of “Dreamgirls,” playing at New York’s Apollo Theater, has been lauded by critics during its three-week inaugural run. Beginning next Wednesday in Baltimore, the cast — including Moya Angela in the star-making role of Effie White and Chester Gregory as James “Thunder” Early — embarks on an eight-month, 15-city national tour, plus a five-week stop in Tokyo.
For Angela, whose previous acting gig was as a “swing” — an understudy for multiple roles — in the touring production of “The Lion King,” it feels like a dream. “I was describing it to my mom. I was like, ‘Mom, I went from the first bow to the last bow,’” she says. “From being in the ensemble to being the leading lady.”
SING OUT: Angela studied classical music, opera and music education at Kentucky State University. “I wanted the best technique because I wanted to be able to really control my instrument no matter what I’m doing, belting big or whatever,” she explains.
IN THE JUNGLE: The most notable difference between working on “The Lion King” and “Dreamgirls”? “Number one, I don’t have to put on an animal costume,” says Angela. “I was a lioness, I was a hyena, I was a bird lady, I was grass, I was a plant, I was a monkey.” And though veteran costumer William Ivey Long’s Sixties and Seventies-era “Dreamgirls” confections are decidedly less complex, Angela has 17 wardrobe changes, many of which must happen in less than a minute. “In rehearsals,” she says, “we would practice one change 15 times in a row.”
FACE OFF: Angela met Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Effie White in the 2006 film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” when she performed in Central Park last summer. “We got to chitchat about everything. It was really just, ‘Hey girl, how you doing?’ I felt like I’d known her,” recalls Angela. But she doesn’t try to replicate Hudson’s performance onstage and stopped listening to the original “Dreamgirls” soundtrack soon after being cast. “I just take each story in the show and relate it to my life. And it hits close to home,” she says. “I mean, we all have been rejected.”
THINK BIG: The Gary, Indiana, native always wanted to be a triple threat. “Growing up, I looked up to entertainers like Gregory Hines, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr.,” he says. In addition to acting, Gregory records his own retro-tinged R&B music with Grammy-nominated producer Dot da Genius, which has come in handy for his recent stints in Broadway musicals “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby.”
SOUL STUDENT: To prepare for his role as James “Thunder” Early, Gregory relied on archival footage of James Brown and Little Richard (who are said to have inspired the part), as well as Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding and even early Michael Jackson. “I just incorporated all of those elements and considered it a gumbo of the greats. So that’s what I’m trying to do, to pay homage to all of those people.” (Eddie Murphy received an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Early in the film version.)
FOOD FINDER: Having worked on productions across the country, Gregory is both familiar with and excited about the long tour. The biggest draw? “I’m looking forward to going to each city, going to restaurants, trying some food.”