- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

Two words should be sufficient to drive you from the comforts of hearth and home and into movie theaters to see “Dreamgirls” when it opens Christmas Day: Jennifer Hudson. Believe every bit of the hype you’ve heard surrounding her performance as Effie White in what is, undoubtedly, one of the most astonishing film debuts in recent memory.

Yes, she’s that good.

And, for the most part, so is the $70 million big-screen adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit, which captured 13 Tony nominations and six awards.

Director Bill Condon (nominated for a 2002 screenwriting Oscar for his adaptation of Broadway’s “Chicago”) skillfully translates the beloved musical from the proscenium setting of the Imperial Theatre to the expanse of the big screen in this timeless tale of backstage ambition, heartache and redemption.

Like the show, the movie does its best to juggle several story lines — including record industry racism in the 1960s, love and betrayal, and the rise of disco — within its two-hour frame.

We meet the Dreamettes — the beautiful Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), the starstruck Lorrell Robinson (Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose of “Caroline or Change”) and divalike lead singer Effie Melody White (Miss Hudson) — as the lifelong friends make yet another bid for pop music stardom in the early 1960s. The robustly talented and fresh-faced vocal trio is despondent after losing an amateur talent contest it deserved to win.

Enter the dapper and ambitious Curtis Taylor Jr. (Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx in a role surely patterned after Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr.), a Cadillac salesman with grand ambitions for a showbiz empire. Curtis enlists himself as the Dreamettes’ manager — having cunningly ensured the unworldly girls’ receptivity — and promptly books them to sing background vocals for flamboyant R&B singer James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy).

Soon, the girls are on the road with James performing a series of one-night gigs on the “chitlin’ circuit.” Romances develop — one between Curtis and Effie; another between the very married James and Lorrell.

Life seems sweet but quickly turns sour.

“Cadillac Car,” a soulful chart climber by James and the Dreamettes, is stopped in its tracks when an all-white group re-records a homogenized cover and makes it a hit. Immediate changes — dramatized in the spectacular dance number “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” — are ordered. Alliances are broken when Curtis recasts James as a black Perry Como-like singer and replaces Effie with Deena — both on stage and off.

A humiliated Effie exposes her pain through the show-stopping “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Miss Hudson’s stirring performance of the song — every bit as arresting as Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in “Funny Girl” — makes the onetime “American Idol” castoff the odds-on favorite for an Academy Award win as best supporting actress.

Mr. Condon also coaxes a revelatory performance — which has generated Oscar buzz of its own — from a revitalized Mr. Murphy as the tragic and talented James Early. Though radiant in “Ray,” Mr. Foxx phones in a lackluster portrayal of Curtis Taylor Jr., an interpretation that somehow falls short of the cold Svengali that Ben Harney so perfectly embodied on Broadway. Mr. Foxx’s Curtis is further diminished by a distracting, inexcusably bad wig in the movie’s first half.

As Diana Ross-like superstar Deena Jones, superstar Miss Knowles doesn’t stretch herself much, even if it is her most challenging role to date. She does, however, take surprising command of the screen with her soaring vocals on “Listen,” one of four new songs written for the film.

“Dreamgirls” also falters, at times, in its crude attempts to establish time sequences, as in, for example, Effie’s rambling rant on learning that civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. has recorded an album of speeches.

But moviegoers should have no trouble tuning out the flaws as they sit back and watch the magic unfold.

***1/2

TITLE: “Dreamgirls”

RATING: PG-13 for language, racism, some sexuality and drug content

CREDITS: Directed by Bill Condon. Adapted for the screen by Mr. Condon from the Broadway musical by Tom Eyen (book) and Henry Krieger (music). Original music by Damon Thomas and Harvey Mason Jr. Costume design by Sharen Davis

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

WEB SITE: www.dreamgirlsmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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