In Dreamgirls, Effie is the singer no one wanted — at least, no one in the Motown-esque trio that thought its success depended on a body more than a voice. But through Broadway and film, a pair of actresses have made Effie the role everyone wanted.
It's the one Charity Dawson won for the touring production of Dreamgirls that comes to the Lexington Opera House for five performances this weekend.
"This is my favorite show of all time, and I was introduced to it very early on," Dawson says. "I heard the Broadway recording of it and loved the music."
When she got to college at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, Dawson started being assigned Effie's songs to learn, including the iconic And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going.
The show, which debuted on Broadway in 1981, follows the fortunes of the Dreams, a trio loosely based on the Supremes that tries to make it to the top of the pop charts in the 1960s. Initially, they are led by Effie and her powerful voice. But their manager, who also is Effie's lover, decides they will fare better with traditional beauty Deena fronting the act. That leads to the emotional first-act climax as Effie is unceremoniously kicked out of the group and belts that emotionally raw, show-stopping song ("And you, and you, and you ... You're gonna love me!").
"Being able to go there emotionally is really important," Dawson says. "Being able to tap into an emotionally vulnerable place, because that's what's really required for this show. There are a lot of ups and downs. It's an emotional roller coaster, and you have to be able to tap into that and not be afraid to go there.
"It doesn't allow you to skim the surface."
Anyone who takes on the role steps into the shoes of Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson. They're big shoes: Holliday originated the role on Broadway, won the 1982 Tony Award for best actress in a musical and won the Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance-female for her single of And I'm Telling You. Hudson played Effie in the 2006 film version and won the Oscar for best supporting actress.
Dawson says she was up for the challenge.
"That's why people come," she says. "These songs are iconic, Effie's songs. When they wrote And I'm Telling You, One Night Only and I'm Changing, they wrote iconic, iconic songs. And Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson performed these songs, and they set a standard."
And I'm Telling You is the show's big moment, but Dawson says she is partial to I'm Changing, an Act II number that is "the point where she has her turnaround," Dawson says of Effie. "She decides not to allow her past or anything get in the way of her moving forward in the future. I love getting to that point in the show."
But there will be a lot more to see than just Effie's songs.
The show itself will be a different experience from previous Dreamgirls productions, with large LED panels creating the settings for the show. The description sounds similar to University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of Porgy and Bess in 2011. That show had panels developed by UK's Vis Center.
"I told someone it's like Disneyland for the theatergoer; it's very exciting to watch," Dawson says. "I have watched it when my alternate goes on, and it's very exciting to watch. It creates an airport, it creates a recording studio, it creates all of these different places through the use of just these screens."
Despite all the iconic American musical theater elements that Dawson deals with in the show, she says she didn't let taking her Effie on the road psych her out.
"I just kind of do it," she says. "I didn't feel much pressure. I told someone the other day, I was born and bred for this, for theater and for moments like these."
IF YOU GO
What: Touring production of the 1981 Broadway musical by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen presented by Broadway Live at the Opera House.
When: 8 p.m. April 19, 2 and 8 p.m. April 20, 2 and 7 p.m. April 21
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Discount: Buy one, get one free ticket available for select seats to the 7 p.m. April 21 performance.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes.