On Stage: Signature Theatre: Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls at Signature

Nova Y. Payton as Effie White- Photo by Christopher Mueller

She Said: Signature Theatre’s Dreamgirls

I love glitter. Most girls do. I think most actors love glitter and sparkle too. One of the reasons that I was drawn to glitter from an early age, and frankly one the reasons I became an actress, was because of the glittery music videos I saw on MTV. I saw Annie Lennox and Diana Ross with fabulous hair, glittery costumes and music that touched my four-year old heart. That was for me! I knew music could entertain and that was special, but I discovered that music was a way to tell your story and affect someone else. Well, that was even better in my mind! Signature Theatre’s production of Dreamgirls is an example of all the best of pop music- the glitter, the fun, the heartbreak and getting a chance to tell your own story.

I had never seen Dreamgirls on stage, but I have seen the movie many times. I really enjoyed the stage version better. I think that Deena’s “heroism and self-reflection” are contrived in the movie. The stage show does a better job showing the approaches that most people use to get through life. In Deena, we see the person who gets swept up in wealth and power. Lorrell illustrates the person bobbing along who is unsatisfied, yet doesn’t really bother to change the situation. Effie represents the person who feels stepped on in life. The book of the musical written nearly 30 years by Tom Eyen feels relevant today. While the script does maintain period detail for the authenticity of the piece, the power and energy given the piece by Henry Krieger’s music feel like a current, contemporary musical.

Matthew Gardiner helms Dreamgirls as a director with an inspiring vision. I love seeing shows at Signature Theatre because I always feel like they tell the story I want to see, but they add so much to it. My expectations for the piece are always exceeded. I expected a musical with flash and songs I love. Because of Gardiner’s visionary choices Dreamgirls is transformed from a mere musical to a modern allegory for perseverance and personal integrity.

The acting in the show was superb! Nova Y. Payton is stunning both physically and vocally as Effie.  Payton created a different Effie than audiences will have seen previously. Yes, the familiar songs are here and what a voice she has!  But, she also brings beauty and vulnerability making Effie a character who is truly heartbreaking and uplifting. Nova Y. Payton is an absolute D.C. area treasure! Cedric Neal is also phenomenal as Jimmy “James Thunder” Early. Neal’s voice is so powerful yet easy that one could listen to him sing- anything- for hours. He turns in a charismatic performance that while larger than life also has heart. Shayla Simmons plays Deena Jones singing and dancing with flair and elegance of a pop diva. Crystal Joy turns in a lovely and endearing performance as Lorrell Robinson.  David Bazemore gives an earnest performance as C.C. White, although he is a little vocally out performed by the talent of the rest of the cast. Sydney James Harcourt plays Curtis Taylor Jr. with emotional intensity and performs his songs with a smooth energy. A team of performers who sing, dance and deliver their scenes with ability and flair rounds out the rest of the cast

The technical elements of this show were truly awesome in concept, but had a few weaknesses in execution. The scenic design by Adam Koch was so cool. I loved how the audience was able to have the feeling of being backstage, and then onstage, then backstage and how quickly and seamlessly they shifted. The lights were certainly bright, in some cases too bright. My eyes were watering at intermission and after the finale. I heard many people around me gasp or wince from the brightness, too. It was definitely too dazzling, but I do wish it had been toned down a bit. The volume of the announcer was also too loud.

Frank Labovitz’s costume designs were a lovely compliment to the piece.  The costumes were appropriate and often gorgeous! The Dreams purple gowns were absolutely stunning. He also did a great job of signifying Deena’s transformation from lead singer to “star” of the group. His costumes showed her metamorphosis through first a ruffle, then gold detail and finally in the dramatic difference of her “One Night Only” ensemble. The attention paid to detail in the costumes is an artistic inspiration and visual feast.

The choreography, by Matthew Gardiner and Brianne Camp was filled with enthusiasm, and perfect period details.  Each different period of musical history that was portrayed was wonderfully exhibited in the dancing of the cast.

Signature Theatre has a great building. It’s beautiful, the lobby is stunning and the staff are all friendly. I was a little cold on the night we went, but it was a terribly cold night. When we were first seated I was nervous to be at the top of the risers because I don’t like heights. The swaying as people walked to and fro also made me nervous. But, I got used to it and once the show started I didn’t think about it again. I was worried a few times when watching the actors negotiate the narrow and very high, platforms on stage.  None of the performers seemed uncomfortable by it and indeed everyone stayed safe. The platforms certainly added flair to the show and emphasized the grandness of the events taking place.

Dreamgirls is like a cherished Christmas ornament: glittery, yet also full of memories and heart. I loved it so much I bought a t-shirt! Seriously! It was a great show and I’m glad to have a memento. Also, if Nova Y. Payton is ever looking for members of her fan club, I’ll gladly sign up for that, too!

Kari’s Rating- 9

Cedric Neal as Jimmy "James Thunder" Early- photo by Christopher Mueller

Cedric Neal as Jimmy “James Thunder” Early- photo by Christopher Mueller

Signature Theatre Dreamgirls

From left Nova Y. Payton, Shayla Simmons and Crystal Joy- photo by Christopher Mueller

He Said: Signature Theatre’s Dreamgirls

I love musicals.  I love those moments in life when words alone just won’t do, and you have to sing.  When that happens to me in real life, I tend to get funny looks, but it would be perfectly natural in a musical.  Nowhere is that raw need to sing to express yourself more present than in the Signature Theatre’s Dreamgirls.

Almost everything in Dreamgirls  is motivated by desire be successful, get ahead, and be loved.  This fictionalized story of the rise of The Supremes, Diana Ross, and Motown Records, shows us just how much you can lose when you will do anything, and hurt anyone to achieve your goals.

Signature Theatre has staged this story in a new way to work in their space, and done a great job.  The movements blocked by Matthew Gardiner felt easy and natural, and you never lose the flow of the story.  Especially enjoyable was the convention they use to present both backstage, and on stage when the many acts are performing at different venues.  This show wouldn’t be the same without live musicians, and it wouldn’t be fair not to mention their great performance as well, under the direction of John Kalbfleisch.

The actors were also great.  Sydney James Harcourt exudes an aura of trouble and constant scheming as Curtis Taylor Jr. This Barry Gordy analogue is a hard role to shine in, but Harcourt has a devilish presentation, that is inviting but scary all at the same time.  This is most apparent during “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” where you can see Curtis tempting the other characters into a path of sin, like a new Lucifer.   The lighting is also used here in maximum effect to show the inner struggle that these characters are having.  Do they stick to the straight and narrow, or do they give into to temptation?

But nobody could compare with the memorable performances of Nova Y. Payton as Effie and Cedric Neal as Jimmy “James Thunder” Early.  Arguably the two most demanding parts in the play, Neal and Payton deliver on every level.  They shine vocally, and dramatically.  They are both so fun to watch that I would go see this again just for them.  Jimmy is supposed to be a James Brown analogue, but Cedric Neal makes you forget that there is any real life inspiration.  He has so much fun performing “Fake Your Way to the Top” in Act 1 and “Rap” in Act 2 that you want to get up on stage and dance with him.  Nova Y. Payton is amazing here.  She gives a completely different (but still powerhouse) performance from last year’s Hairspray where she played Motormouth Maybelle.  This production hinged on her performance, and she did not disappoint.  Her rendition of “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” was a virtuoso performance.  It was incredible.

Adam Koch’s set for this show proudly boasts 500 light bulbs.  These can be used for great effect sometimes, but there are others where it can burn out your eyes when they are all lit up at maximum intensity, or when the foot lights at the back of the stage are used early in the show.  It’s unclear whether this is due to Koch’s set design, or Chris Lee’s lighting design since in this production the two are so intertwined.  That and the uncomfortable seats in the house are the only negative things to be said about Signature Theatre’s Dreamgirls.

This is however not a play for small children.  While there’s nothing too offensive for adults, there is some cursing, some of the dancing might not be appropriate for children (sorry Jimmy), and there is some talk of premarital and extra-marital sex.

RJ’s Rating-10

Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets for this post

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