Think of the Ivoryton Playhouse production of "Dreamgirls" as a show that has been 30 years in the making.
It was in 1983 that director Larry Thelen saw the national touring company of the Michael Bennett musical about the rise of a pop singing group much like the Supremes, and he has been toying with the idea of doing his own production ever since.
"Over time I started developing my ideas of how it should be done, and I started talking with (Ivoryton artistic director) Jacqui (Hubbard) and felt comfortable doing it," Thelen said in an interview last week about adapting the show for the intimate Essex venue.
"It's like getting to know a friend," the director added of his "Dreamgirls" planning. "They become a part of you."
The support of the theater's artistic director has been crucial in tackling this ambitious project.
"They don't produce shows here just to produce them. They always want to do them properly," Thelen said.
(In a separate interview, Hubbard noted that she would not have committed to "Dreamgirls" without being confident that Thelen had a concept that would work in her theater.)
The historic Ivoryton Playhouse has been gaining ground for the past several years and is becoming a renowned destination theater like the Goodspeed Opera House in nearby East Haddam.
Thelen worked at Goodspeed for several years, but has recently become one of the regular directors at the Essex venue.
"I think the theater is at a place now where we can do a show like this one," Thelen said. "It has been a great experience so far. ... You can tell immediately (in rehearsal) if things are going to click or not. We have such a great cast and so many of them have worked together before, which is always a plus."
Even with a much simplified scenic design, "Dreamgirls" is still an expensive show to produce because of all the costume changes.
"You follow these girls from the Apollo to Las Vegas and those gowns are expensive ... the costume budget is double what we usually spend," Thelen said.
The director's admiration for the work Bennett did on "Dreamgirls" has grown as he has delved deeper into the material.
"I have to say that I had a sense of the show from when I saw it, but when I sat down with the script I realized that the show is seamless. You can't break it down in rehearsal into individual numbers like you would do with `Fiddler on the Roof' or another (classic musical). It is almost as if one person wrote the whole thing," Thelen said of the way Bennett pulled all of the elements together and imposed his vision on them.
The immersion in "Dreamgirls" has made Thelen wistful about what the American musical theater lost in 1987 when AIDS claimed the 44-year-old Bennett.
"To think of all he might have done in the theater is so sad after seeing how much influence his work on `Company' and `Follies' and `A Chorus Line' had on everyone, and how he still affects us today," Thelen said.
Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Essex. Wednesday, Aug. 7-Sunday, Sept. 1, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $40-$15. 860-767-7318. www.ivortyonplayhouse.org.