4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
Extended through Jan. 13, 2013
Tickets start at $40
The production of “Dreamgirls” now onstage at Signature Theatre is a dazzling delight, a stunning reexamination of an iconic American musical. Talented director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner and his creative team skillfully rethink the show from the ground up, bringing great clarity, intensity and emotional depth to this powerful production, along with lots of sequins and theatrical magic.
“Dreamgirls,” which debuted on Broadway in 1981, was the last great work by legendary Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett, who died of complications from AIDS in 1987. The musical, with a sizzling score by Henry Krieger and strong book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, tells the story of the Dreams, a girl group from Chicago (loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes) who rise to international music stardom.
The show opens in 1962 when the “Dreamettes” lose a talent contest at the famous Apollo Theatre in New York City, but win a contract as back-up singers for the popular R&B star James “Thunder” Early. They also acquire a manager, used-car salesman Curtis Taylor, Jr., who has big plans for the group. Repackaged as the “Dreams,” the girls soon break out on their own. Curtis moves back-up singer Deena Jones into the lead, hoping that her sexy looks and sultry voice will attract a mainstream (i.e. white) audience. Despite the personal and professional cost to Effie White, the full-bodied and full-voiced original lead singer, “Deena Jones and the Dreams” conquer the charts.
Gardiner, the openly gay associate artistic director of Signature Theatre, brings a fresh eye to this well-known material. His work throughout is richly nuanced, alternating between the spectacular precision of big production numbers and the detailed intimacy of backstage numbers and book scenes. One of the great joys of this production is the sheer variety of performance styles that Gardiner deploys with great confidence and effectiveness: the slick polish of the onstage production numbers, the girls nervously making up the steps the first time they perform with Jimmy, Curtis prompting C.C. (Effie’s brother and the group’s songwriter) as they convince Jimmy to listen to their new sound, the eloquent staging of the group dynamics in “Family,” the elegant simplicity of Effie’s torch rendition of “One Night Only” followed by Deena’s delightfully boisterous disco rendition of the same song. Gardiner captures the full sweep of this classic American story by nailing down all the details.
Gardiner’s sure-footed work is made possible by the outstanding contributions of the design team of Frank Labovitz (costumes), Adam Koch (sets) and Chris Lee (lights). Labovitz’s splendid cavalcade of costumes is an ongoing visual treasure. His beautiful designs help tell the story by tracking the passing years and the changing circumstances of the characters and do so with great visual flair. Koch’s two-tiered set design lets the action move fluidly from backstage to onstage at various performances venues around the country. The set changes are as carefully choreographed as the other movements and just as much fun to watch (although the occasional wobbling of the central hydraulic platform can be a little scary and distracting). Lee’s light design is equally stunning, and together, the design team creates an appealing and highly theatrical whirlwind of shifting perspectives, lighting magic and quick changes.
But any production of “Dreamgirls” depends on its Effie, and Signature Theatre is blessed with the amazing powerhouse performance of D.C. native Nova Y. Payton. Following in the wake of superstars like Jennifer Holliday (a Tony winner in the original Broadway production), Jennifer Hudson (who won an Oscar for her performance in the movie) and Lilias White (who wowed audiences in the famous concert recording), Payton makes the role thoroughly and completely her own. Her work in this show is simply stunning, full of fascinating choices and fresh insights. She purrs when you might expect her to roar, and when she does roar, she blows the roof off the theater.
Payton’s richly detailed acting captures every aspect of the complex character: her love of performing, her prickly pride and deep resentments, her self-destructive tantrums and brave persistence in the face of adversity. Her performance of the show’s signature number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is devastating in its soaring delivery and its searing pain and vulnerability. In an evening of striking images, the most indelible is a deeply wounded Effie turning to watch the reconstituted Dreams perform without her on the balcony above her. It is a moment of brilliant stagecraft.
Payton’s dynamite performance is matched by Cedric Neal as James “Thunder” Early, who finds unexpected depths in a flashy character inspired by James Brown. His Jimmy is a man of deep passion for his music and for the ladies in his life. His direct interactions with the audience are a bold and delightful choice and his onstage meltdown is a moving spectacle of pride, defiance and self-destruction.
As the third member of the Dreams, and Jimmy’s mistress, Crystal Joy is wonderful as Lorrell Robinson, who tries to play peacemaker between the warring backstage factions. She brings sass, humor and style to a character that can easily fade into the background. Joy subtly builds Lorrell from a star-struck teenager to a mature woman, and her love for Jimmy is as deeply heart-felt as her frustration with his refusal to leave his wife. Shayla Simmons brings similar strengths to her winning performance as Deena, especially in capturing her shifting relationship with Effie and in fleshing out her development from back-up singer to reluctant lead to world-class diva.
It’s magical when first-rate material gets a first-rate production, and that is certainly the case with this show. Krieger and Eyen have created a clear-eyed yet loving portrayal of the joys of performing and the perils of show business, and a rich exploration of the challenges facing black performers when Motown became mainstream. Signature Theatre has taken a great leap with this re-invention of this ambitious musical, and that leap has certainly paid off.