Everyone knows "Dreamgirls" as the Broadway musical with Motown on its dramatic mind, even if the hallowed record label promoted as the "Sound of Young America" never gets explicit mention.
What's not so well known is that the musical has a deep bench of fans beyond its 2006 film adaptation by director Bill Condon. How far beyond? Try 1981.
"Dreamgirls" was the first large-scale attempt to bring the energy of young black America during the early 1960s to the musical stage. That effort succeeded beyond the expectations of its creators, composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen, winning six Tony Awards in 1982.
Even without those garlands, "Dreamgirls" would stand alone on the fact that it expanded the possibilities of musical theater by drawing upon R&B music. With 21 musical numbers in the first act alone and 38 total in both acts this is a musical as generous in tunes as it is in body and soul. It packs a wallop in drama, too, chronicling the three women of The Dreamettes as they position for love and fortune during a time across 20 years, when show business and personal lives were inseparable, and black musicians were striving to break into mainstream American radio and popular culture.
"It's raw and emotional, like open-heart surgery onstage," said Charity Dawson, who plays singer Effie White, the character who delivers the show-stopping number "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
Dawson played Celie in the national tour of "The Color Purple," but even the drama of that experience couldn't prepare her for the demands of portraying Effie.
"It's a marathon, a role where life is all around you," Dawson said by phone from Santa Barbara, Calif. "The show goes back to a time when there was a passion and drive for the music that I don't know that we've seen since."
Effie competes with fellow girl singer Deena Jones implied as the ostensible Diana Ross just as The Dreamettes have been interpreted as modeled on The Supremes for front-line position in a drama that swells with ambition, betrayal and, ultimately, a sense of grace and forgiveness.
Keeping the trio in balance is Lorrell Robinson. Played by Mary Searcy, Lorrell is a voice of reason and beauty as turbulence and romance grow all around her. Searcy played Maureen, a very different character, in a 2010 production of "Rent" at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, Md.
"This is a bigger show, by comparison," Searcy said. "With 20 costume changes, there's a whole 'nother show going on backstage."
"Dreamgirls" is a musical Dawson, a 28-year-old Detroit native, grew up with. She saw her first production of "Dreamgirls" at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater when she was 19. She saw the show 14 more times before the arrival of the 2006 film adaptation, which starred Beyoncé Knowles as Deena.
Dawson concurs with Searcy about the blistering pace of the show's costume changes. But she said the most difficult part of the musical is making sure the heart of the drama is never overwhelmed by its constant razzle-dazzle of set pieces and spectacle.
"I'd never want people to walk away saying, 'Wow, those were some great costumes,' " Dawson said. "I'd rather they walk away moved by the story's message that you can dream, and even out of negative circumstances, you can come out on top."
The national touring production of the R&B musical comes to the Capitol Theatre stage.
When • Feb. 5-10. Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $30-$57.50. Call 801-355-5502, 1-800-259-5840 or visit www.magicspace.net/saltlakecity for more information.