‘Dreamgirls’ at Signature Theatre by Andrew L. Baughman

“You’re gonna love me,” wails Nova Y. Payton as cast-off lead singer Effie White in the showstopper Act I finale of Signature’s Dreamgirls. Payton makes good on her promise: I do love her. In fact, I love the entire cast of this phenomenal production.

Deena Jones (Shayla Simmons) steps into the spotlight in “Dreamgirls.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The 1982 Tony Award-winning Dreamgirls is a thinly veiled biography of the behind-the-music drama of Diana Ross and The Supremes. Manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (suave, Svengali-like Sydney James Harcourt) leads his trio girl-group “The Dreams” to superstardom by shifting focus from the talented Effie to the more conventionally attractive Deena Jones (Shayla Simmons).

Tom Eyen’s book is not exactly perfect. Some scenes feel overly sentimental, and only a handful of characters are given real depth as the story clips along mechanically like an endless film montage. Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner and Co-Choreographer Brianne Camp combat the pitfalls of the libretto by seizing moments to slow down and allow the piece to breathe.

R&B star Jimmy “James Thunder” Early (Cedric Neal) croons a new tune. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The true genius of Dreamgirls lies in Henry Krieger’s genuine Motown-infused score, and Gardiner has assembled a cast of gifted musical actors who make every harmony sizzle, aided by Music Director Jon Kalbfleisch and Matt Rowe’s flawless sound design. There are moments in the production when you can’t believe that you are hearing live performers rather than studio produced CD tracks. They make it seem effortless.

Payton leads the pack as an adorable and heartbreaking Effie. She puts her unique artistic stamp on beloved songs like “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going,” “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only.” Cedric Neal walks away with the entire show as Jimmy – James “Thunder” Early – blending the charisma of ‘The Godfather of Soul’ with the silver pipes of Stevie Wonder in a performance audiences will not soon forget. The third standout actor is captivating Shayla Simmons as Deena Jones. She makes a realistic and powerful transition from unassuming backup singer to glamorous pop diva. Simmons is the actor to watch in coming years as there are undoubtedly more great roles in her future. Gardiner and Costume Designer Frank Labovitz do remarkable work of making 13 actors seem like a cast of hundreds, and they successfully transport us through multiple decades. Adam Koch’s dark, dual-level set relies on texture rather than color, creating a cavernous illusion with relatively little stage depth.

Dreamgirls is a vintage musical that is rarely produced, and never produced this well. This is the 2012 show you don’t want to miss!

Headstrong lead singer Effie White (Nova Y. Payton) climbs the charts single-handed in ‘Dreamgirls.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Dreamgirls plays through January 6, 2013, in Signature’s MAX Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. Tickets are available for purchase in person at the Signature Theatre Box Office (703) 820-9771, online, or by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-7328.


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