Things to Do

Theater Review: “Dreamgirls” at Signature Theatre

Nova Y. Payton burns bright as Effie in Signature’s current production.

From left, Nova Y. Payton, Shayla Simmons, and Crystal Joy in Dreamgirls. Photograph by Christopher Mueller.

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
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

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