When Tammie Harris got the call from Kentucky Conservatory Theatre director Wes Nelson about casting for the 2017 Winterfest production of “Dreamgirls,” she assumed she didn’t get the lead role.
A Broadway musical with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen, “Dreamgirls” follows a Supremes-like band on their way to stardom.
“Just the tone of his voice, I was like ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t get the role; let me get my voice together and try to sound grateful that he chose me for the ensemble,” Harris says, laughing.
Her composed voice turned to a scream when he told her she got the key role of Effie Melody White, famously played by Jennifer Holliday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson in the film.
“I was over the moon,” Harris says. “I think I screamed so much that day I lost my voice.”
Harris, a Georgetown native who sings in the local band Tim Talbert Project, got a taste of the role in 2010 when she performed “One Night Only,” one of the musical’s signature pieces, for the announcement concert for the Lexington Opera House’s Broadway Live series.
“It was like a foreshadowing,” says Harris, who had seen only the movie.
“There are a lot of things in the production that don’t translate into the movie and vice versa,” Harris says. “The production is a lot bigger and has a lot more music.”
Whether in the musical or the film, the role of Effie is iconic and larger than life. The character starts out the show as the leader of The Dreams, but she is later replaced by Deena, a character based on The Supremes’ Diana Ross, who was played by Beyoncé in the movie and is played by former Miss Kentucky Clark Davis in the WinterFest show.
When the movie came out, Hudson’s name was not above the title on the poster, those slots going to then-better known actors Beyoncé, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx. But, like Holliday before her, Hudson made a name for herself with Effie.
How does Harris approach a role with such iconic associations to major stars?
Very carefully. And thoroughly.
“I have not watched the movie since I got cast,” Harris says. “I listened to a concert recording because they did ‘Dreamgirls’ in concert around 2001 and I have listened to that to get musical notes of it.
“I didn’t want to be a copycat of anyone else’s performances,” she says. “I’ve just been going over the music and going over the script and trying to find a way to humanize Effie. I think it’s easy to think she’s a diva. She’s controlling and she will miss performances and then expect to be treated like a queen — but then I’ve been trying to figure out: What is it about her that makes her act the way she does?”
Harris says the scale of the production is challenging, as is the intensity of singing Effie’s big numbers, including the showstopping “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” daily.
“I bought myself a steamer, and it has been the joy of my life,” says Harris, who also uses a cool-mist humidifier to pamper her voice so she can practice daily. “On the days I’m not feeling up to it, I still listen to the music every single day.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
What: Production of the classic musical by Kentucky Conservatory Theatre’s WinterFest
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 19-22, 26-29; dinner served at 7 p.m.
Where: The Grand Reserve, 903 Manchester St., No. 190
Tickets: Ticket prices start at $25 and vary depending on seating and food service.