Touching some of the same territory as the recently arrived “Motown” tour in San Francisco, this highly-fictionalized take on Diana Ross and The Supremes shines its brighter spotlight on Effie Melody White (as a less tragic Florence Ballard), the lead singer pushed aside in favor of a more crowd-pleasing image for her group.
Eschewing the “force of nature” histrionics that landed Jennifer Holliday a Tony (and Jennifer Hudson an Oscar), Miranda D. Lawson stands out as a strong, proud and troubled woman facing the challenges of ego and betrayal. Her acting and her vocals are rich without being showy, making the character as talented as she is flawed, but far more real.
Flanking Lawson are Janelle LaSalle as Deena Jones (the Miss Ross stand-in) and Majesty Scott as Lorrell Robinson. LaSalle delivers a solid, understated performance, nicely traversing the path from naïve hopeful to embattled star. Scott has the showier part, exuding a joyful effervescence until she needs to reclaim her dignity by ending her doomed romance.
The other half of that affair is portrayed by the immensely gifted Dedrick Weathersby, who puts the “Thunder” in James Early. It’s a high-flying performance that dazzles with fancy footwork, rousing vocals and a fascinating, multifaceted characterization.
Making deals and breaking hearts, Anthone D. Jackson creates a compelling visual as manager Curtis Taylor Jr. and demonstrates prodigious vocal ability. Unfortunately his acting lacks range and confidence, so his non-singing time is less effective. It’s the flip-side with AeJay Mitchell, who is sweetly ingratiating but musically challenged as Effie’s brother C.C.
Director Angela Farr Schiller’s staging keeps the story on a steady forward trajectory that is only occasionally stymied by technical details. Robyn Tribuzi makes a sizzling choreographic statement early on with “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” but some of the later production numbers seem to fall short of their aspirations.
Kelly Tighe has created a visually stunning and versatile set of interconnecting mobile prosceniums, well lit by Seamus Strahan-Mauk. Some of the other set pieces could have benefitted from the same level of attention. Margaret Toomey dresses the production with some highs (Lorrell’s black-and-white pants suit) and lows (photo-shoot gowns).
Sean Kana’s exceptional work with both the performers and orchestra would be far more pleasing if it were not frequently undermined by the poor sound delivery. Whether this is due to design shortcomings by Jon Hayward or flawed equipment at the Fox, it’s a problem that needs speedy resolution, particularly for a musical.
Presented by Broadway By the Bay
Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 31
Tickets: $42 to $64
Contact: (650) 579-5565, www.broadwaybythebay.org