In 1982, Broadway actor Ben Harney took
home the Tony for Best Actor for his performance in "Dreamgirls."
This month, he has applied his professional experience - infused
with his personal memories - to direct the same show at the Kumble
Theater for the Performing Arts in Downtown Brooklyn.
The theater is on the campus of Long Island University, but the performance is being produced by Harney’s own company, By All Means Save Some (BAMSS) Theatre Works. His company was based in Brownsville until December 2005, but now the troupe is looking for a new home. A portion of the ticket sales for "Dreamgirls" will help BAMSS secure a new performance space.
BAMSS is a non-profit company that opened eight years ago with the purpose of producing shows and providing a source of educational theater to both children and adults.
Harney himself is a Brooklyn native; he grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and now lives in Crown Heights. He made the jump to the Great White Way when he was 18 and signed his first Broadway contract. Harney starred in the original productions of "Pippin" and "The Wiz," among other Broadway shows, before his award-winning performance in "Dreamgirls," which is loosely based on the Supremes’ story.
"It’s a rags-to-riches story," Harney told GO Brooklyn. "Dreamgirls" follows the story of a trio of women from Chicago that calls itself "The Dreamettes." They leave their lives behind to come to New York City and try out for a talent competition at the legendary Apollo Theater. Despite conflict and failure, the audience watches the girls soar to stardom, risk and re-form relationships, and ultimately grow up, with or without The Dreamettes.
In the original Broadway production, Harney played Curtis Taylor, Jr., the used car salesman who becomes The Dreamette’s manager. Moving from actor to director of the production, Harney experiences a stint of nostalgia now and again.
"It definitely does spark a remembrance of things that happened 25 years ago," Harney said. "It was an amazing experience to build a show like this and to have it become such a piece of history. I have wonderful remembrances of relationships forged in the show, working relationships, camaraderie in developing the piece, and what it was as a professional vehicle and story for African-Americans." For the Kumble Theater production, Harney has cast his daughter Jennie in the role of Deena Jones, the character loosely based on Diana Ross.
"Needless to say, it is quite amazing," said Harney about his daughter’s performance. "We didn’t encourage our children to pursue the arts, but they are all very gifted and creative individuals."
Although the musical was on Broadway in the 1980s and is set in the 1950s, Harney maintains that the musical still has cultural relevance today.
"The whole world is crazed with these competitions," said Harney. " ’American Idol,’ ’Top Model,’ all the get-rich-quick and find-stardom people. They are looking for something that will give them this transition from one world to another, to catch that brass ring and blow up. There are a lot of perils, choices, compromises, possibilities for relationships and disappointments. [’Dreamgirls’] speaks to anyone who is part of the modern world that can identify with those hopes and dreams."
Harney said his production licensing fees were subsidized by DreamWorks Pictures, as part of a promotional offer open to any amateur production of the musical prior to the December opening of its film version, which stars Beyonce Knowles.
Harney said his vision of "Dreamgirls" is a full production, complete with a live band. After a Broadway career, he is proud to be giving back to the borough he calls home.
"Community theater is important because of just that: community," Harney said. "Theater itself builds community. People feel this is something coming out of their own backyard. It empowers community and spreads something that is unified to those who come and gives a sense of identification with the actors, the piece itself and the experience. People think they are part of something that affects their own lives; it is a sense of excellence found in the community."
By All Means Save Some Theatre Works presents "Dreamgirls" at Long Island University’s Kumble Theater (1 University Plaza at Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn) on Nov. 18 at 2 and 7:30 pm, Nov. 24 at 7:30 pm, Nov. 25 at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Nov. 26 at 5 pm. Tickets are $49, $39 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. Children under 5-years-old not admitted. For more information or to order tickets, call (718) 488-1624 or visit www.brookl