Connect with us

Arts & Entertainment

First rate ‘Dreamgirls’ wows

Signature production full of unexpected delights, performances



Dream Girls, Shayla Simmons, Signature Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade


Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington

Extended through Jan. 13, 2013

Tickets start at $40

Dream Girls, Nova Y. Payton, Shayla Simmons, Crystal Joy, Signature Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade

Shayla Simmons, center, as Deena in ‘Dreamgirls.’ Nova Y. Payton, left, as Effie, and Crystal Joy as Lorrell, back her up. (Photo by Chrisopher Mueller; courtesy of Signature Theatre)

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.



Trans women banned from track and field, intersex athletes restricted

World Athletics Council policy to go into effect March 31



CeCé Telfer (Photo courtesy of Instagram)

The organization that makes the rules for track and field meets around the world declared Thursday it will bar transgender women who have experienced male puberty from competing, a move that was anticipated following a similar trans ban issued last year by the governing body for world swimming.

As the Associated Press noted, at this moment there are zero trans women competing at the elite level of track and field. But the edict, which the World Athletics Council announced will take effect on the Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31, is crushing news for one hopeful. 
In May 2019, CeCé Telfer won the 400m hurdles at the Division II championships and became the first out trans woman to win an NCAA title. She’s been training ever since for her shot at the Olympics, despite being ruled ineligible for Beijing at the trials in 2021. The Jamaican-American had set a goal of qualifying for Paris in 2024. But the World Athletics ban ends that dream.

Telfer tweeted Thursday, “It feels as though the world stopped moving.”

Another ruling by the group will likely mean no shot at the Olympics for another Black woman athlete, two-time gold medalist Caster Semenya. The South African track icon is not trans, but because of her higher than typical testosterone levels, she has been barred from competing in her signature event, the 800m. World Athletics took that from her around the same time Telfer made history, in May 2019. 

The group issued an eligibility ruling that prohibits female athletes like Semenya who have Differences in Sexual Development from competing in women’s events, from the 400m to one mile (1600m), unless they reduce their testosterone levels. So, Semenya chose to run in longer events than she did previously. She finished 13th in her qualifying heat at 5,000 meters at world championships last year as she worked to adapt to longer distances, in preparation for Paris. 

“I’m in the adaptation phase, and my body is starting to fit with it. I’m just enjoying myself at the moment, and things will fall into place at the right time,” the South African runner told the AP.

That time may now never come. On Thursday, World Athletics announced athletes who have DSD will have to undergo hormone-suppressing treatment and maintain a testosterone level of below 2.5nmol/L for 24 months, in order to be eligible to compete in any event in the female category.

Semenya vowed following the 2019 ruling that she would never again take any testosterone suppressing medication, terming the rules discriminatory and unfair.

This new rule could impact not only Semenya but also as many as a dozen other elite runners, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said. Among them, Olympic 200-meter silver medalist Christine Mboma of Namibia, who won a silver medal in Tokyo two years ago but didn’t compete last year because of an injury. Mboma has not publicly stated whether she would be willing to undergo hormone therapy.

Like Semenya, Olympic 800-meter silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi has said she will not undergo hormone suppression. 

Even though Niyonsaba, Mboma and Semenya are not trans like Telfer and former Connecticut high school track athletes Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller — who have been targeted in federal court by opponents of inclusion — there is one thing all these women have in common: They are all women of color, and all targeted for being too fast because of their natural gifts.

Continue Reading


Chicago Blackhawks: No Pride jerseys over Russia concerns

Several of the team’s players are Russian



Chicago Blackhawks players wearing 'Pride Night' jerseys in April of 2022 (Photo Credit: Chicago Blackhawks/Facebook)

The National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks franchise have opted to not wear the team’s Pride-themed warmup jerseys before Sunday’s Pride Night game against the Vancouver Canucks based on security concerns over the recently expanded Russian law prohibiting mention of LGBTQ rights in Russia the Associated Press reported.

According to the AP, the decision was made by the NHL organization following discussions with security officials within and outside the franchise, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to the AP on Wednesday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the move.

Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is a Moscow native, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country the AP noted.

The team has participated in the LGBTQ themed part of the ‘Hockey is for everyone‘ campaign and has in previous years set aside recognition for the LGBTQ community in Pride night celebrations.

While the team will forgo the jerseys, the AP noted that DJs from the LGBTQ community will play before the game and during an intermission, and the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus also is slated to perform. There also are plans to highlight a couple of area businesses with ties to the LGBTQ community.

The decision by the team has sparked outage including Outsports editor Cyd Zeigler, who noted on Twitter that the NHL has an inclusion problem as the Chicago team joins the New York Rangers, who opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their Pride night this past January despite previously advertising that plan. The Rangers’ Pride Night was held 10 days after Ivan Provorov, the alternate captain for the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers, opted out of participating in the team’s Pride Night charity event before the game Tuesday, claiming a religious exemption based on his Russian Orthodox faith.

San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer didn’t take part in the Sharks Pride Night wearing Pride-themed jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community, telling multiple media outlets that support of the LGBTQ community runs counter to his religious beliefs.

Continue Reading


Reading ‘Blue Hunger’ is like watching a Stanley Kubrick film

Lush, dreamlike, and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it



(Book cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Blue Hunger’ 
By Viola Di Grado, translated by Jamie Richards
c.2023, Bloomsbury
$27/ 216 pages

You can’t stop thinking about it.

It’s been rolling around in your mind since it happened and you can’t stop. You replay it over and over, how it started, how it progressed, why it ended. You wonder if it’ll happen again and in the new novel “Blue Hunger” by Viola Di Grado, you wonder if you truly want it to.

Shanghai was not her first choice for a place to live. Sometimes, she wasn’t really even sure why she came there, except that it was Ruben’s dream.

For months and months, he spoke of Shanghai, showed her maps, talked of a life as a chef living in a high-rise apartment, and he taught her a little bit of the language. She never fully understood why Ruben loved China and she never thought to ask before her other half, her twin brother, her only sibling died.

She was brushing her teeth when it happened. Now, weeks later, she was in his favorite city, a teacher of Italian languages in a Chinese culture, alone, friendless. Then she met Xu.

It happened at the nightclub called Poxx and she later wondered, with a thrill, if Xu had been stalking her. Xu claimed that she was a student in the Italian class, but though she was usually good with faces, she didn’t remember the slender, “glorious” woman with milk-white skin and luminous eyes.

She did remember the first place she and Xu had sex.

It was a hotel, but Xu liked it outside, too; in public, on sidewalks, in abandoned buildings, and in crowded nightclubs. They took yellow pills together, slept together in Xu’s squalid apartment; she told Xu she loved her but never got a reply except that Xu starting biting.

Xu had used her teeth all along but she started biting harder.

Soon, she was bleeding, bruising from Xu’s bites, and seeing people in the shadows, and she began to understand that Ruben wouldn’t have liked Xu at all.

You know what you want. You’re someone with determination. And you may want this book, but there are a few things you’ll need to know first.

Reading “Blue Hunger” is like watching a Stanley Kubrick movie. It’s surreal, kind of gauzy, and loaded with meanings that are somewhat fuzzy until you’ve read a paragraph several times – and even then, you’re not quite sure about it. Author Viola Di Grado writes of sharp, unfinished mourning with a grief-distracting obsession layered thickly on top, of control and submission, and while the chapters are each brief, they feel too long but not long enough. There are so many questions left dangling within the plot of this story, so many small bits unsaid, but also too much information of the mundane sort. You’ll feel somewhat voyeuristic with this book in your hands, until you notice that the sex scenes here are humidly uber-fiery but not very detailed.

Overall, then, “Blue Hunger” is different but compelling, short enough to read twice, quickly. It’s lush, dreamlike, and once started, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade