I cannot deny that upon learning that Amber Riley had been struck down with pneumonia, just a few days before I was due to go and see her in Dreamgirls, I was a little bit devastated. My tickets were a birthday present and a treat up to which I had been counting down the days. I was assured that Riley’s replacement, Marisha Wallace, was a worthy understudy and I would not be disappointed – but how could I not be? Like many others, a large part of my decision to see the show was down to my love for Riley in Glee.
As it was, the show that I saw in January was simply outstanding. Marisha Wallace, flown in from the United States especially, was a revelation, absolutely slaying the show’s biggest and most heartfelt number, ‘And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going’ with a gut-wrenchingly powerful vocal performance. My subsequent review was positively glowing with compliments for the cast and the production, extolling praise for the clever staging, the rousing musical numbers and the deft balance struck between impassioned drama and brilliant comedy.
I left the Savoy Theatre with my heart full and practically bouncing down the cobbled streets of Covent Garden. It was a buoyant feeling that convinced me that I needed to see the show again, not just to see Riley, but to feel that addictive joy. Dreamgirls truly is an example of the best that musical theatre has to offer.
Last week I finally returned to the Savoy Theatre, this time having checked (and double checked) that Amber Riley was scheduled to perform and ready to compare and contrast. Would Riley live up to the honour of an Olivier win? Would it be everything I had been waiting for?
Once again, any doubts or worries I might have had were quickly forgotten. Riley was, quite simply, phenomenal. Her exceptional comedic timing, her heartbreakingly real emotion, that voice… All it took was the first few notes of ‘And I’m Telling You…’ and I was welling up, tears streaming down my face, forgetting that my phone was on my lap as I jumped to my feet at the end. My only complaint would have to be the audience was enjoying it so much at times it was hard to hear her.
To compare Riley and Wallace would be to do them both a disservice. They brought different qualities, different nuances to Effie – both brilliant, both powerful, both beautiful enough to bring me to tears. It has been a great privilege to see both these ladies show the world their boundless talent – I would go back, again and again and again. One Night Only? No thanks.