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When the award winning Amber Riley departed the West End cast of Dreamgirls in November 2017, three new leading ladies emerged to take her place. Moya Angela, Marisha Wallace and Karen Mav have been sharing the role of Effie since, rotating their appearances throughout each week. As highly influential producer Sonia Friedman notes, the role offers one of the biggest vocal performances in West End history, leading to the casting of “three extraordinary vocalists to play this iconic role”.
Their vocal stature is matched in the empowering story unfolding on the West End stage, with Dreamgirls telling the tale of Chicago outfit The Dreamettes. Throughout the powerful musical, Effie deals with common difficulties resulting from ambition, and brilliantly mirrors the struggles faced daily by many women in entertainment. Both the role and the performances are built on confidence, on fighting adversity, and on a perfect delivery.
As we continue to celebrate the role of women in theatre, marking 100 years since women obtained the vote in the UK, we speak to Moya Angela, Marisha Wallace and Karen Mav to find out more about starring in the poignant musical.
What first attracted you to the role of Effie, and to Dreamgirls in general?
Moya: Effie White is a tough girl with a big voice. She is very confident at the beginning of her journey and then she gets a little lost, but she grows a lot stronger and figures out who she is as a woman and finds her voice through soul music and is very triumphant again. The story in Dreamgirls is something that anyone can relate to, if you have issues with your friends or family, sibling rivalry, ambition. When I heard about the production opening in London I told my agents there’s no way you’re not getting me in that audition room.
Marisha: Dreamgirls has three women leading, which you rarely get to see in all of musical theatre history. Three, strong, powerful women in the lead. Black women, who don’t get many of these roles.
Karen: Dreamgirls is about three fabulous girls who come together and form a singing group and chase their dreams. I’m like the Effie at the start of the show, just entering showbiz. As the youngest Effie, I feel a lot of resonance to the character in that period of her life. A lot of it is what I’m going through right now. She starts off as a young girl with big dreams. All she wants to do is sing but there are a lot of obstacles that she has to overcome. During the second act she finds herself and realises it’s all about the music.
What is your favourite thing about playing the role of Effie?
Moya: We’re singing some of these incredible tracks like Move, Listen, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going and One Night Only. I sometimes forget that Henry Krieger wrote all the songs for this musical and that it wasn’t released on a ’45 and people weren’t really there listening to it in the 60s!
Marisha: I love that I get to put my own spin on it. My Effie has a lot of humour but she also has a lot of heart. I try to show a lot of truth in what I get across with the character, I really want audiences to feel like Effie could be their best friend, she’s a real person, 3D.
Karen: I always feel elated at the interval when the audience is so giving, crying, standing and clapping and there with me. I never underestimate how much of a job this is, the vocal gymnastics and the emotion drawn from telling Effie’s story. I get to work and live in the music every time I go onstage.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned from sharing the role between three?
Marisha: I’ve learned that it’s a very demanding role, I think it’s the biggest sing in musical theatre. With any muscle you have to train it and make sure you look after it – we’re vocal athletes. It’s a lot like how it works with opera singers; we share the role across the week so each audience gets everything we got.
Moya: Yes! We’re ‘Team Effie’ but each of us has their own way of doing it. It’s very unique because of that; we all bring something different to it and when I’m watching the show and I see Marisha or Karen I’m always blown away by the power of the human voice.
Karen: After a year of being in the show I’ve learned to have a structure – I want the audience to feel like they’ve got the best performance so I make sure I rest my voice and steam every day.