“Sensational,” Variety raved of Payton in a Philadelphia production of “Dreamgirls” several seasons ago. Payton played Effie, the big singer who gets kicked out of a Supremes-style girl group, and “had the crowd shouting and clapping.”
Payton made her debut last year at Signature playing Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray,” and Sherri Edelen, who has performed dozens of roles with the troupe, recalls the newcomer sitting in the corner at the first rehearsal, huddling in a large jacket, keeping her hat low over her eyes.
Then Payton sang. The cast jubilantly threw shoes at her, because according to Edelen, that’s what actors do when someone blows the room away.
“You cannot sit in the corner and act like you’re nothing when that voice comes out of your mouth,” Edelen says.
Payton won a Helen Hayes Award for “Hairspray,” and her voice has since propelled her to a fruitful year with Signature. Highlights:
• Payton and Edelen, an electrifying duo singing Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman” in the goofy “Xanadu” (they played Greek goddesses).
• Payton raising the roof in the lusty, up-tempo R&B tune “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’ ” in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
• Starting Tuesday: Payton as Effie again in “Dreamgirls.”
“She is the reason we’re doing ‘Dreamgirls,’ ” says associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner, who is directing and choreographing the show.
The starring role is a splashy homecoming of sorts for Payton, 32, who was born and raised in Northwest Washington. She has spent a lot of her career based in New York but working on the road. For years, she has been a backup singer for Roberta Flack, and she appeared during Flack’s NSO Pops concerts last month at the Kennedy Center. She has also toured with shows such as the blues-to-classical showcase “Three Mo’ Divas” (seen on PBS) and the jukebox musical “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a showcase for the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
That 10-month “Smokey Joe’s” gig was a low-budget, non-Equity bus-and-truck tour. Such jobs are notoriously grueling: In a bad week, the show might play three different cities.
“Five different cities,” Payton corrects during a lunch break from “Dreamgirls” rehearsals. “In my worst week, we were somewhere different every day.”
Payton, in jeans and a simple purple blouse, comes across as sweet and direct. (The only extravagant touch: a giant beaded butterfly ring.) Ask whether the audience cheered each night in the middle of her “Crossing” song, and Payton says she can’t recall, because she was concentrating on her character and music too much to notice. All business.
“She is very humble and reliable at all levels,” Flack wrote in an e-mail. “I created an arrangement of ‘Wishing on a Star’ for her to sing as a surprise for my audiences, and each time, she brings the audience to its feet.”