“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.”
Payton has performed since she was a child, when music was all around, and “I would just mimic what I heard.” Her mother sang in church and semi-professionally (Payton’s parents divorced when she was 2), and Payton was consistently involved with school, church and parks and recreation performances. Dance was her focus until her teen years, when she performed with her own girl groups until graduating from McNamara High School in Forestville.
She took only a year of college at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Although she says she was invited back, Payton had chafed at the counseling that many conservatories view as practical in the cutthroat professional world. For her audition, Payton sang “Think of Me” from “Phantom of the Opera,” and was told she’d never be cast that way.
“Why wouldn’t I be cast as that person?” Payton asks simply, ticking off the kinds of obstacles that get brought up (race, body type, alto parts such as Motormouth Maybelle that are not strictly suited to her soprano voice). “If I can sing it and I can act it, I should be able to be cast in it. . . . I always thought that if you go in and you audition for a show, in their mind you may not be the person, but your audition can change the whole look of it. So that kind of was a turnoff.”
After leaving school, a brief gig in something called “Acoustic Chocolate” at the newly refurbished Hippodrome in Baltimore was followed by the bus-and-truck tour of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” She was 24 and had been married for two years to her high school sweetheart.
“I think the tour took a toll on that, though,” Payton says of her first marriage, which dissolved after three years.
Payton tells a story of how a friend’s agent helped her get an audition for the role of Effie in Philadelphia, even though he had never heard her sing. The callbacks seemed endless, and Payton recalls finally getting to perform for musical director Jesse Vargas.
“He was like, ‘I don’t understand why y’all are putting her through all this,’ ” she says. “ ‘This girl can sing. What are you all doing?’ ”
The show was an extended hit and got Payton her Actors’ Equity card, which led her to . . . another “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” this time for the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina. Resettling in the District, Payton worked with Adventure Theatre and Washington Savoyards before grabbing attention at a Signature audition two years ago.
It took the company a while to know what to do with her, and if “Dreamgirls” makes it look as though the talented Payton is running in place, she doesn’t see it that way. The show means a lot to her, and she says she relates to its drama: She has lived the girl-group stuff and survived disappointments with men.
“I’m in a different place,” Payton says. She has a 3-year-old son by a second marriage that has also dissolved (“Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” is her shorthand description of both breakups). Now, Payton, in addition to performing, directs the Archdiocese of Washington’s Mass Choir and runs the drama club at Elizabeth Seton High School. She makes the hours work with cooperation from Signature, with help from friends near the boy’s school and with the support of her mother, who still lives in the house in which Payton grew up.
It’s not clear what’s next. Payton is reluctant to hit the road again, but the Signature folks talk as though she won’t be sticking around.
“We are taking as much advantage of Nova Payton as we can while she’s still here,” Gardiner says. “Because she won’t be here for long, that’s for sure.”
“Nova is gifted,” Edelen says. “Gifted. She’s going to have to share that on a much bigger platform than just D.C.”
But can she get the roles she wants? Payton doesn’t accept that there can’t be black Elphabas in “Wicked” or Marias in “The Sound of Music.” She sees herself in shows as varied as “Annie” and next spring’s Broadway musical “Motown” (which she is keeping a keen eye on). Payton has a cabaret engagement slated for Signature in March, and its title seems appropriate: “Defying Gravity.”
“My grandmother would always say to not to let anything stop me,” says Payton, who lost her grandmother and her 103-year-old great-grandfather within the same week last month. “Just keep going, keep going. That’s just something that I have instilled in me.”
Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Signature Theatre through Jan. 6 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.