4200 Campbell Ave.
Through Jan. 6
(Pride Night Dec. 7)
Tickets: start at $40
Arlington’s Signature Theatre is about to tackle one of the biggest shows in Broadway and Hollywood history: “Dreamgirls.”
Director and choreographer Matt Gardiner had one word to describe his initial reaction: “daunting.” For actress Nova Payton, who will be starring as Effie White, the word was “demanding.” For costume designer Frank Labovitz, the word was “huge.”
“Dreamgirls” is a show that is often tagged with the word “legendary.” It was the last major show of legendary Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett. It was legendary for the backstage fights during workshops, rehearsals and previews, for the 20-minute show-stopping ovation during Act I on opening night, and for the long run on Broadway, along with numerous national and international tours. It was also legendary for the staging that featured set designer Robin Wagner’s rotating towers and for Theoni’s V. Aldredge’s dazzling costumes (both of which were featured on the show’s iconic posters).
And it was legendary for the new sounds that composer Henry Krieger brought to Broadway and for the smooth cinematic way that lyricist and bookwriter Tom Eyen wove the music and dialogue together. It became legendary for a movie adaptation that won an Academy Award for “American Idol” runner-up Jennifer Hudson in her movie debut.
“Dreamgirls” tells the story of the Dreamettes, a girl group from Chicago that rises to international fame. The plot is loosely based on the saga of Diana Ross and the Supremes and other Motown-era figures. After losing a talent competition at the famous Apollo Theatre in New York, the Dreamettes are hired as back-up singers for James Thunder Early. Spurred on by their ambitious manager Curtis Taylor, Jr., the girls break away from Jimmy and begin performing as “the Dreams.” Effie White (a character somewhat based on Supremes’ founder Florence Ballard) sings lead and her friends Deena Jones (the Diana Ross figure) and Lorrell Robinson sing back-up.
Although he is having an affair with Effie, Curtis moves Deena to the front of the group. She has a smoother sound and a slicker look that he thinks will be more appealing to white audiences, enabling the group to cross over and sell more records. Although the group does become increasingly popular, Effie is not happy singing back-up and begins to suspect that Curtis is having an affair with Deena. Her suspicions are confirmed when Curtis dumps her personally and professionally.
That’s the cue for the show’s most famous number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which original Effie Jennifer Holliday performed twice last year in D.C. — at Pride and with the Gay Men’s Chorus.
As Act II opens and the story moves from the 1960s to the 1970s, Curtis marries Deena, who becomes an international superstar, although she yearns to be seen as a serious actress. Jimmy falls on hard times when he rejects Curtis’ advice on how to appeal to broader audiences. Effie has a child and struggles to rebuild her career. The Dreams help usher in the disco era, and the rest is music — and musical theater — history.
Faced with this challenging material and famous predecessors, Gardiner and his collaborators have developed a fresh and exciting approach to the show.
“I spent a lot of time with our design team trying to come up with a way to do it that honored Michael Bennett’s original intention but made it our own,” he says. “At Signature, we would never be able recreate Bennett’s staging, so we are trying to find our own way into it that is more Signature.”
For example, the openly gay Gardiner notes, “Bennett and the writers really played with the idea of perspective, the change between backstage and onstage. In that original production he had the use of these beautiful towers that became iconic in the way the show is remembered. From the onset, we knew that we weren’t going to do it that way. We asked how do we play with the idea of perspective, both onstage and offstage, and the whole idea of the glamorous sparkle and what’s underneath it.” To answer that, they’ve created a more intimate approach to the musical that uses a smaller ensemble and focuses more clearly on the Dreams and their leading men.
One of the things that will give Signature Theatre’s production of “Dreamgirls” a distinctive feel is Nova Y. Payton’s highly anticipated performance as Effie White. Gardiner freely admits, “It is no secret that Signature chose the piece for her and I don’t think anyone’s going to be let down.”
Maryland native Gardiner is full of praise for his star. “She’s a wonderful person first and foremost and then on top of that she has the most killer voice. She’s a spectacular actress and a spectacular singer and we’re waiting for her to blow the roof off Signature.”
D.C. native Payton returns the praise to Gardiner. “I love Matt!” she says. “This will be second show I’ve done with him. (Their first collaboration was last season’s “Zanadu.”) Matt is brilliant. His vision of the show is very clear. In rehearsal, he’s very precise about what he’s looking for but at the same time allowing us as actors to bring what we may see. We are a team trying to put this production together and he trusts us.”
Payton also has great praise for the work of costume designer Frank Labovitz, although she won’t reveal much about the fabulous costumes she will be wearing.
“I don’t want to give away too much,” she says, “because when you think about “Dreamgirls” you think about the beautiful costumes.”
But she does praise Labovitz for his innovative design. “What excited me about Frank’s renderings was how different they were from what I’ve seen before. It’s fresh and a very new feel, but it stays true to the period. And of course there are lots of sequins and bright colors and beautiful shoes and wonderful hair and makeup. You can definitely look forward to that.”
Labovitz estimates that there are about 200 costumes in the show. The Dreams alone have 11 sets of three matching dresses, plus their individual costumes with day looks and eveningwear “It’s a constant parade of costumes,” the designer says. “If an actor isn’t onstage, he’s offstage changing clothes.” Labovitz says the costumes are almost like another character in the play. They help to tell the story, detailing the changing circumstances of the characters and capturing the feel of the rapidly changing world around them. “It’s rare that you get to work on a show where the costumes are so central to telling the story.”
The costume designer is also a big fan of Hollywood’s version of “Dreamgirls.”
“One of the things that was great about the movie was how faithful they were to the original,” he says. “The movie version really maintains the character of the show.” But he adds, there’s nothing like seeing the show in a theater. “There is something magical about watching it live. Some of the moments in the show are unbelievable, like when someone does a costume change onstage in front of you and you don’t see it happen because of tricks with lights and costumes. Those moments onstage seem to defy reality.” Like when the Dreams exit in one costume and appear onstage six seconds later in a different outfit.
The opening of “Dreamgirls” at Signature Theatre will also have a special resonance for D.C.’s LGBT community. While the show is a favorite for gay and lesbian audiences, the show’s signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” has long been a special favorite for drag queens in the nation’s capital and around the world. Many of D.C.’s leading ladies of drag will no doubt be rotating the song back into their act. And that’s fine with Nova Payton, who says, “I love seeing the ladies do what they do.”
Frank Labovitz also offers some advice about tackling the song: “It’s all about the attitude. It’s about owning it, about being as fiercely tenacious as you can be. It’s larger than life and it’s expressing an emotion we’re all familiar with, the idea that we’re not ready to move on yet.”
In the meantime, Matt Gardiner says theatergoers can expect one of the largest productions that Signature has ever done.
“It will blow people away,” he says.