Miles from Broadway, ‘Dreamgirls’ debuts in Seoul

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SEOUL, South Korea – A revival of the Tony Award-winning hit Dreamgirls is back on stage – nearly 7,000 miles off-Broadway.

SEOUL, South Korea – A revival of the Tony Award-winning hit "Dreamgirls" is back on stage – nearly 7,000 miles off-Broadway.

A glittering new production of the 1981 musical is having its world premiere in Seoul with an all-Korean cast. Deena and the Dreamettes are expected to head to Broadway in 2010, recast with American actors. Auditions have already begun in New York City.

Co-producer John Breglio calls the new production the “very first cultural exchange between Broadway and Seoul,” and notes that it is the first time an American-financed musical is opening overseas before playing in the United States.

Indeed, productions that might have opened in smaller U.S. cities before heading to Broadway are now looking abroad first for enthusiastic audiences.

“It seemed like we had an international title, something we could do all over the world,” says Breglio, who oversees the estate of "Dreamgirls" creator Michael Bennett. “The whole Asian rim is interested in the musical. Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia – there’s a whole market for American musicals.”

South Korea is enjoying a boom in Western musicals, including "The Lion King," "Rent" and "Grease." The Asian nation with a long tradition of song and dance is also becoming a testing ground for joint international productions. Besides "Dreamgirls," a Korean production of the French musical Don Juan is finishing up a run with South Korean leads and a Spanish cast of flamenco dancers and musicians.

The new "Dreamgirls" remains the story of how three young soul singers fend off unscrupulous promoters and navigate romantic entanglements as they make the rise from talent show neophytes to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

But it has a fresh, new look, including a minimalist set that relies on $1.3 million worth of LED lights that can replicate everything from a CBS television studio to glitzy concert halls, and project silhouettes to stunning effect.

The music has been given a modern sheen. Listen, a new piece written for the 2006 movie version and sung in the film by Beyonce Knowles, was such a hit in South Korea that they included it as a duet in Seoul.

The costumes are a veritable fashion show of 1960s-inspired glamour, featuring dozens of sequined, beaded and bedecked show gowns for each singer – more than 600 costumes total – not to mention the 14 different wigs for each leading lady.

The production cost more than 10 billion won, or about $6.5 million at current exchange rates.

Breglio says he hopes the production will become a model for the future.

“Economically it’s a great model for us because we can share cost and development, and it will result in me having to spend much less in North America,” he says. “I have enormous respect for the craft and the work ethic here.”

Reviews have ranged from glowing to cautiously positive, with the brightness of the LED lights and the cast’s trouble hitting the soulful low notes drawing some criticism. One reviewer warned people not to expect Diana Ross and the Supremes, the original inspiration for the show, which originally starred Jennifer Holliday as Effie. Jennifer Hudson of "American Idol" fame won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Effie in the movie version.

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