|Dreamgirls starts next week at Manitoba Theatre Centre.
WINNIPEG - The only thing higher than singer-actress Toya Alexis's stilettos in MTC's Dreamgirls are the expectations that come with playing Effie White.
Thankfully, the Ajax, Ont., native has a simple solution for avoiding comparisons to Jennifer Hudson -- the American Idol castoff who made off with an Oscar for her portrayal of the tragic diva in the Broadway hit's 2006 film adapt.
"I banned myself from watching the movie," says Alexis, who returns to Manitoba Theatre Centre (she played a preacher's wife in 2005's Crowns) for this month's musical season-ender. "I just wanted to build it on my own thing and what I do vocally, and what I do as an actor. I just took my own life experience and put it into the role."
Once a struggling musician herself, Alexis -- like Hudson -- found fame on reality TV. Her powerful pipes carried her to the Top 6 of Canadian Idol's first season in 2003, and helped her forge a connection with judge Farley Flex -- now her manager and a godfather to her 13-month-old son Lyric Justice. Her debut CD, S.O.B. Story, was released on Flex's label, and she recently signed a deal with Warner.
"Idol helped people just notice and made people just want to reach out a little more," Alexis says.
The task at hand is one that's near and dear to the double-threat, a longtime fan of writer Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger's 1981 Tony-winner about Chicago girl group The Dreamettes -- popster Deena Jones (Queen Cee), feisty Lorrell Robinson (Katrina Reynolds) and curvaceous Effie Melody White -- who are taken under the wing of used-car salesmen Curtis Taylor Jr. (J. Alexander Campbell) and catapulted to fame as backup singers for R&B star James "Thunder" Early (Troy Adams). The glittering gals -- obviously inspired by The Supremes -- eventually run their own show, but conflicts arise when Deena steals Effie's spotlight AND boyfriend (Curtis), and new addition Michelle (Saccha Dennis) replaces her in the group.
"I've just been a lover of the show and the music and the material. I guess it's something that's always followed me," says Alexis, who has been requested to sing Effie's pivotal solo And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going at concerts and was practically a shoo-in when she auditioned.
"I noticed a lot of similarities between my life and Effie's, for the drive and the passion -- the good, the bad and the ugly that you have to deal with."
Timothy French (Guys and Dolls) directs the 18-member cast through the dramatic rise and fall of the newly minted Dreams, while musical director Stephen Woodjetts has a handle on a soundtrack of R&B tunes like One Night Only, Dreamgirls and closer Hard to Say Goodbye, My Love.
Costume designer Michelle Vanderheyden was faced with perhaps the biggest task: Creating a wardrobe as fabulous as the divalicious troupe. Alexis admits she's no glamour girl, but Michelle understudy Kimberley Rampersad -- the Winnipegger in the cast -- is head over heels in love with the costumes.
"It could be gaudy, but it's not," she says. "It is always classy and true to the period. The Dreams especially have some of the most outstanding costumes I've seen in a long time. If it needs to shimmer, it shimmers; if it needs to glow, it glows."
A self-proclaimed shoe fanatic, Rampersad was thrilled to discover her ensemble role came with 10 pairs of shoes -- including a pair of gold peep-toe heels she'll definitely have her eyes on when the musical wraps next month.
"I couldn't ever wear them in my real life, but it's great to have an excuse to wear them onstage," she gushes. "Small victory for the chorus girl!"