To miss Nova Y. Payton singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” would be like skipping Christmas.
The gift is delivered midway through Signature Theatre’s sizzling revival of “Dreamgirls,” and it’s not the only present bestowed under the hot lights. Payton has the juiciest role, that of Effie White, the plainest, angriest Dreamgirl, who in being cast out of the group reaps the biggest melodic rewards: the 1981 musical’s powerhouse solos, “I’m Not Going” and “One Night Only.” But she’s matched for potency by Cedric Neal, whose electric turn as Jimmy Early, a soul singer cursed by self-destructive narcissism, infuses the character with tragic heft — an ingredient perennially absent from the musical’s main arc, which covers the rise and disintegration of a Supremes-like trio.
Around his twin dynamos, director Matthew Gardiner has gathered a cadre of singer-actors fully equipped for the vocal rigors of a fairly conventional show-biz story made special by Henry Krieger’s emotionally raw pop score and the propulsive advance of the musical staging. That energy, a hallmark of Michael Bennett’s brilliant original Broadway production, is regenerated slickly by Gardiner and co-choreographer Brianne Camp.
“Dreamgirls” so seductively traces the steppingstones of the group’s ascension, masterminded by cold, calculating Curtis Taylor Jr. (a suave Sydney James Harcourt), that you tend not to notice that Tom Eyen’s book sort of peters out toward the end. (The awkward reconciliation of Effie and Deena Jones, the Diana Ross character played here by the splendid Shayla Simmons, has never felt particularly convincing.) Krieger supplies much worth listening to, in pour-your-heart-out melodies and clever lyrics for the Dreams’ and Early’s songs that often convey deeper, offstage meanings.
Signature wants the eye, too, to be delighted. So on the girders and platforms of Adam Koch’s multilevel, hydraulic set, lighted with concert-hall aplomb by Chris Lee, Gardiner allows costume designer Frank Labovitz to let out his own inner Bob Mackie. The Dreams change costumes at the speed a Metro turnstile processes SmarTrip cards; each singer — vivacious Crystal Joy as Lorrell Robinson and solid Kara-Tameika Watkins as Michelle Morris fill out the group — has something like 20 dresses to get in and out of over the course of 21
2 hours. The gowns of aquamarine iridescent sequins Labovitz designed for the title number — a creepy/sexy song suggesting the young entertainers as geishas — glitter like Caribbean reflecting pools.
The ambitious scaling up of the glamour factor — even getting on the ever-evolving wigs seems a military operation — helps to define the progress of the Dreams, who in Eyen’s telling are shoehorned into public images they can’t sustain. Labovitz’s contributions here are not only wonderfully executed, they are essential. (Watch for the witty onstage quick-change he devises for Payton in Act 2.) The sleek sleeveless and one-shoulder gowns in which he drapes the Dreams suggest Motown goddesses; as the fissures open up among the women, the era-mirroring outfits of the ’60s and ’70s become ever flashier, and, in a way, sadder. Ultimately, the dresses forlornly seem to be wearing the Dreams.