Songs that fall within the showtunes spectrum are typically pretty spirited. But then there are those numbers reserved for a special kind of stage siren—the bringing-down-the-house “Maybe This Times” and “Don’t Rain on My Parades” that helped solidify the soaring star power of many a Patti, Barbra, and Bernadette. The goosebump-delivering barnburner in Dreamgirls is a make-it-or-break-it moment for any actress taking on the role of headstrong diva Effie White in the Tony Award-winning 1981 musical, and the dazzling Nova Y. Payton, starring in Signature Theatre’s current production, just plain kills it. Payton’s crystal-clear vocals are sharp and unexpected, favoring a higher, sweeter (but just as powerful) register than the fiery, guttural belting one might expect of a showstopper like “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and the show’s other R&B hits. For a story about what it takes to be a star, director Matthew Gardiner found the right woman for the job.
Even without such a commanding leading lady, Dreamgirls would be easy to like. Aglow in sequins, spotlights, and toe-tapping energy, the musical follows a black Supremes-style girl group’s unlikely rise to fame in the 1960s white-dominated music scene, complete with the requisite sin, backstabbing, and sacrifice. The show is familiar, catchy, and comfortable without being too frothy. Compelling performances like Payton’s and Cedric Neal’s slick and impassioned turn as glitzy showman Jimmy “Thunder” Early keep the production grounded.
It’s no wonder those same roles got the Academy’s attention back in 2006, earning Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for her portrayal of Effie in the musical’s popular film adaptation and Eddie Murphy a best supporting actor nomination for playing Jimmy (an honor, you’ll recall, the comedian might very well have nabbed had it not been for the ill-fated decision to release tasteless flop Norbit that same year). The characters are easily the show’s richest and most dynamic, a fact not lost on Payton and Neal vocally or dramatically.
Rounding out the title trio are the capable Crystal Joy as Lorrell Robinson and Shayla Simmons as the Diana Ross figure, Deena Jones. Simmons’s character requires a tricky evolution she doesn’t quite deliver, a balance between meek backup singer and superficial but glittering frontwoman—she stands out too much when she’s meant to fade in Effie’s shadow and not enough when she’s supposedly a crossover icon. Her performance is solid and improves as the show goes on, but lacks the spark that would make her transformation truly convincing.
Though occasionally in need of some final polish, the supporting ensemble is lively and talented. All the cast members make Adam Koch and Chris Lee’s respective scenic and lighting designs their vibrant playground, step-touching their way through a spotlight-lined jungle of beams and ever-changing levels with choreographed Motown flair. Meanwhile, the rustle of glinting paillettes on the women’s matching gowns, the sheen of Jimmy’s form-fitting lamé suits, and the subtle stylistic shift from doo-wop to disco courtesy of Frank Labovitz’s sensational costume design flesh out the ambitious production the script and soundtrack call for. Even the show’s sometimes awkward penchant for sing-talking between actual songs can be mostly forgiven, outshined by an overall aesthetic befitting the glamour and coolness of its era.
Beneath the bright lights and nostalgic harmonies, Dreamgirls is an extended ode to finding your own voice and staying true to it, and that’s a story everybody can relate to, especially when it’s cloaked in such heartfelt pizzazz. At a time when R&B musicians were at the mercy of white popular culture’s prudish (and, let’s face it, significantly dorkier) taste, real-life performers who inspired characters like Effie White and Jimmy Early knew it was all about soul. And despite a few wrinkles, this production has soul to spare.
Update 11/29/12: Dreamgirls has been extended at Signature Theatre through January 13. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Signature’s website.