Dreamgirls

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Editorial Review

Signature’s ‘Dreamgirls’ sizzles
By Peter Marks
Friday, November 30, 2012

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 main story 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.

Like so many great Broadway musicals, from “Show Boat” to “Gypsy,” from “Follies” to “A Chorus Line,” “Dreamgirls” is an attempt to draw back the curtain on the turbulent lives of show people. It’s focused more than those others on the business side; as foreshadowed in the cool, silkily choreographed production number “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” Curtis must grease palms and sabotage competitors to clear the group’s path. The manipulation gives a cynical spin to Krieger’s wonderfully ironic “Family,” the song Curtis, Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (the endearing David Bazemore) and the other Dreamgirls sing to Effie to console her after she’s been dumped as lead singer.

The moment Curtis informs the entitled, untamed Effie that he’s pushing her to a supporting role in the group is a crucial one, and one for which Signature’s impossibly wide main stage is perhaps not ideal. Payton’s back is to much of the audience as Curtis delivers the devastating blow. It is frustrating to miss her expression, denying by some important fraction our desire to commune with her.

For it is Effie who has to convey the majority of the musical’s pathos. Payton is the type of performer who expresses herself most keenly through music, and so whatever about Effie might have seemed slightly opaque in the dialogue scenes comes to the surface with geyser force in Effie’s songs. This is borne out enthrallingly in “I’m Not Going,” up there with “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl” and “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” as the most exhilarating showstoppers ever written for an actress.

Accompanied by the finely modulated 10-member orchestra perched upstage, Payton’s piercing sound feels singular and, in “I’m Not Going,” blessed with a sense of effortlessness, allowing her to offer her interpretation as a combustion of Effie’s uncompromising wiring: She wants things her way, and to hell with the pigeonhole the world has in mind for her. It is, in this neck of the woods, the musical moment of the year.

But not if Neal has anything to say about it. And he does, in a gleefully sexual, self-satisfied embodiment of Jimmy that tells you all you need to know about male vanity and star entitlement. (His arresting melismas are like musical statements of masculine pride.) The polish he displays is emblematic of a production destined to bring joy to the world, 250 customers at a time.

PREVIEW: Dream voice: Nova Y. Payton
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nova Y. Payton has it. The Voice. ¶ When Arlington’s Signature Theatre presented a concert version last month of “Crossing,” a commissioned musical by local actor-composer Matt Conner, Payton sang the part of the Civil Rights Marcher. She navigated the melody’s soaring demands with such authority that the audience erupted into cheers -- in the middle of the song. ¶ “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:

l Payton and Edelen, an electrifying duo singing Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman” in the goofy “Xanadu” (they played Greek goddesses).

l Payton raising the roof in the lusty, up-tempo R&B tune “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’ ” in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

l 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.”