Chester Gregory prepares to light up the stage
When Broadway’s all-new production of Dreamgirls makes it to the Marcus Center next week, get ready for lots of fashionable flash, thunderous singing and solid personas.
Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom with co-choreography by Shane Sparks, this fully reworked musical gained momentum during its premiere at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater in November before embarking on a national tour. With music by famed composer Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen, the show tells the story of three young singers who become superstars in the same vein as many other R&B acts like The Supremes, The Shirelles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and others.
The original Broadway production of Dreamgirls, premiered in 1981, closed in 1985 and won six Tony Awards; it was revived in 1987 and then again in 2001. By 2006, it was adapted into a motion picture by DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures and won a slew of awards, including Oscar and Grammy nods.
Recently, ThirdCoast Digest caught up with singer/songwriter/actor Chester Gregory, who portrays “James Thunder Early” in this newest production. A native of Gary, IN, Gregory is no stranger to the stage. He played the lead in the highly acclaimed Jackie Wilson Story and has been in Hairspray, Shrek, Cry-Baby and Tarzan.
Here, he speaks candidly about his ascent to Broadway; his encounter with the King (of Pop); and what we can expect from Dreamgirls.
The Jackie Wilson show ran for three years in Chicago. The third year, we also did a tour to the East Coast, Detroit, several cities, ending it at The Apollo Theater in Harlem. I got a great review from the New York Times, and it started to create a buzz. Then I was asked to perform at the Manhattan Theatre Club and, before long, like three weeks later, I was in Hairspray.
Did you sense that your portrayal of Jackie Wilson would be turning point for you?
I try not to expect much with each show. Even after the Jackie Wilson Story, I continued to grow, with me performing for 1,500 seats per show. I really hope that this show brings inspiration to people. I want to be able to share the message with the audience.
For folk who have never seen Dreamgirls, what should they expect?
For this show, they went through auditions for more than a year. (Original cast member) Jennifer Holliday wasn’t a name before Dreamgirls. This production made her a name. Instead of picking celebrities, they casted people they really felt were right. Syesha Mercado was on American Idol. Moya Angela, who plays Effie, is terrific. We have people who the creative team felt were right for the roles. We do eight shows a week, every week, in different cities.
I got a chance to work with a lot of the original team. Henry Krieger. Milton Craig Nealy (Marty), who has a lot of experience. It’s a tremendously talented group. It’s great. This version has a different spin on it. The main focus is between Deena and Effie and finding reconciliation. These people who you see perform on stage do it every night. We share this story about family.
Are there any parallels with your own family?
No. I’m an only child. But my friends are like my family. There’s camaraderie with everyone, especially when you spend 12 hours a day, every day, learning music, choreography, lines. The chemistry you see on stage — it’s real.
The costuming for Dreamgirls speaks volumes. They’re bold and bodacious.
They’re done by William Ivey Long. He designed almost 600 costumes for this. A double history major, he knows his stuff. I also worked with him in Hairspray. The costumes are wonderful and get a reaction. In some cases, we change out of the costumes in 10 seconds. It’s a great story, with great music and the costumes are stunning and beautiful to look at.
At one point, you had a chance to perform for Michael Jackson. How was that, especially in light of his death?
I’m from Gary, IN, his hometown. There was the Thriller video and him always remaining humble. That was all inspirational for me. Around 2003, there was a special group that was asked to perform for him in Gary. He was going to help build the Michael Jackson School of the Arts there. I knew he was a huge fan of Jackie Wilson, so I did a Jackie Wilson song and one of my songs. He gave me a standing ovation. And when his security led him out, I yelled his name. He didn’t turn around; he just gestured with his hand. But when I called out, “Jackie Wilson,” he turned around and waved.
I guess his death just started to hit me a few weeks ago. I started having dreams. The same day they officially announced the cast for Dreamgirls was the same day he died. This show opened at The Apollo, where Michael got his start. We’re both from Gary. There are a lot of interesting parallels. Fortunately, his music is eternal.
Okay, one last question: Have you ever been to Milwaukee?
Yes, I have some relatives in Milwaukee. I’m looking forward to being in the Midwest again.
Dreamgirls runs Jan. 5-10 at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall. For ticket information, visit the Marcus Center website or call 414-273-7206.