Dream a Little Dream

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This has been a strange festival. In the first few days, at least to these veteran eyes, the two most satisfying works on view have been the series of vignettes that make up the omnibus film Paris, je t'aime, and four scenes from Bill Condon's unfinished Dreamgirls, shown Friday by DreamWorks and Paramount at the Martinez Hotel.

Even those who couldn't see the Dreamgirls excerpts shared the excitement. As we approached the hotel with Roger and Chaz Ebert, we heard the enthusiastic screams of hundreds of onlookers, as Beyoncé Knowles and Jamie Foxx, two of the film's stars, strode down a carpeted sidewalk. Besides Foxx and Beyoncé, most of the principal cast lent their luster to the evening. Anika Noni Rose, a 2004 Tony winner for Caroline, or Change, was brought up on stage, as were Jennifer Hudson from American Idol and star-of-the-future Keith Robinson (who got his chance when negotiations with R&B singer Usher broke down). Eddie Murphy couldn't make it, so Foxx managed a dead-accurate impersonation, right down to Murphy's trademark donkey laugh.

This presentation was unofficial, and far down the Croisette from the Palais des Festivals. But the chance of a first look at an eagerly awaited movie lured a couple hundred journalists to the event, seven months ahead of the film's opening on Dec. 20.

It was exactly 25 years prior to that date, Dec. 20, 1981, that Dreamgirls opened on Broadway. Conceived and directed by Michael Bennett, the show was a critical and popular smash. It won six Tony awards, for Book, Choreography, Lighting, Actor (Ben Harney), Actress (Jennifer Holliday) and Featured Actor (Cleavant Derricks). The prizes it didn't take — for Best Musical, Score, Direction and Featured Actress — all went to Nine, itself quite a suave piece of musical theater but not in the class of the Bennett extravaganza.

Dreamgirls ran for 1,521 performances, closing in Aug. 1985, but its influence spread far beyond the confines of the Majestic Theatre. The show sent the clearest signal yet that blacks could anchor a Broadway hit. Its defiant anthem, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," has been sung countless times over the years in the Amateur Night competitions at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, as well as on American Idol.

The excerpts shown Friday began with an scene showing the Dreamettes, as they first call themselves, getting a gig as the backup girl group to Early; it's a dy-no-mite turn by Murphy, who used to parody James Brown on Saturday Night Live and does a more mature but still amazingly robust impression. In the second scene, Effie is told she's no longer the group's lead singer; her resentment is momentarily soothed by the others' singing that they're all one "Family." Then Beyoncé gets the star treatment — a photo montage worthy of Audrey Hepburn's in Funny Face — and Foxx sings the love ballad "When I First Saw You." Finally comes the title number, put over in sensational style and with de luxe production values.

At yesterday's follow-up press luncheon, writer-director Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) was modest but confident. He knows the uphill battle faced by any movie musical, particularly one with songs that rise from the story; audiences have a hard time accepting a character who talks one moment, sings the next. (The last film musical of this kind to be a hit? Condon has the depressing answer: Grease, nearly 30 years ago.) But the director — who also was screenwriter for that other hit movie musical anomaly Chicago — is counting on the marquee appeal of Foxx, Knowles and Murphy to bring audiences into the multiplex. After that, he has to trust his own craft and instincts to entertain them artfully and get a return on the $73 million budget.

Henry Krieger, who composed the original score to Tom Eyen's lyrics, has written four new songs with different lyricists. (Eyen died of AIDS 15 years ago this week.) Hudson gets another tune; Murphy has a Marvin Gaye-style protest number, "Patience"; Beyoncé has a second-act ballad; and there's a playful homage to the Jackson Five.

Producer Laurence Mark knows the odds are against movie musicals. But Larry loves the form so much, for its modern potential as much as its glorious history, that he dares to dream of other projects. Could he remake Carousel with Hugh Jackman? Or do a Chorus Line movie — right, this time? Why not think big and put on an original film musical?

Twenty minutes, even the 20 shown at the Martinez, do not make a movie. There's no telling how the entire film will play. But the Friday-night tastes were savory. It was apparent that the film, designed by John Myhre (X Men, Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha with special lighting by Broadway legend Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, looks fabulous. Choreographer Fatima Robinson put the non-dancing actors through brilliant moves. As someone who saw the original show five times, I would not have thought that a movie could have equaled my Dreamgirls memory, but what I saw might just be its cinematic equal.

Dec. 20 is a long time coming. And I am telling you I can't wait.

—Mary Corliss

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