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.
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.
Book by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Co-choreography, Brianne Camp; set, Adam Koch; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Matt Rowe; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. With Lauren Du Pree, Daphne Epps, DeMoya L. Watson, Bus Howard. About 2½ hours. Through Jan. 13 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.