Nova Y. Payton staves off the cold in cozy Burt Bacharach cabaret

'That’s What Friends Are For' features some of Bacharach's greatest hits in jazzy arrangements that showcase Payton’s vocal prowess.

While residents of the Washington region have found themselves chilled to the bone in a snowy cold snap this week, DC theater favorite Nova Y. Payton is heating up Signature Theatre’s ARK space in a cozy cabaret celebration of composer Burt Bacharach’s extensive catalog, playing through February 4. Featuring some of the writer’s greatest hits, from “Walk on By” to “Close to You,” in jazzy arrangements that showcase Payton’s vocal prowess, That’s What Friends Are For is a warm, comfortable diversion that both Bacharach devotees and novices alike can enjoy.

Nova Y. Payton. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

While Bacharach is widely regarded as one of the most prolific American composers to ever live, this latest installment in Signature’s cabaret series mostly surveys his collaborations with lyricists Hal David and Carole Bayer Sager. With a career spanning six decades, Bacharach had received six Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and a Primetime Emmy Award by the time of his death in 2023 (failing to win Best Musical for his musical, Promises, Promises, he was only a Tony shy of the elusive EGOT status). His songs continue to be reinterpreted by contemporary artists, as Payton does in this production, and the original recordings of his pop hits remain sentimental touchstones for generations of listeners.

That nostalgia is clear in a number of songs that Payton performs. Introducing a rendition of “I Say a Little Prayer” early in the show, Payton recounts growing up in Washington and listening to Aretha Franklin’s recording of the song on the family record player. As she sings, Payton clearly melts into the memory of the song, closing her eyes and singing with abandon, as if returning to her childhood home. In this blissful moment of wistful remembrance, she seems to invite her audience to transport themselves to their own memories of days gone by, when the now-familiar melodies of Bacharach’s signature songs were still fresh and new.

But not all of Payton’s patter between songs is as organic as her childhood associations with Franklin or Luther Vandross, whom she recalls later in the night. At times, her connections to Bacharach and the selected songs feel flimsy and explanations of the composer’s history slow the show unnecessarily.

That’s not to say that Payton fails to deliver on the songs that appear to hold less emotional weight for her, like “Promises, Promises” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” On the contrary, she proves with each song why she has earned her reputation as one of the region’s finest performers. Her talent for building a song and leading her audience to an emotional climax is instinctual (as evidenced by past performances on Signature stages, most especially as Celie in The Color Purple last season). But when she is emotionally connected to a song, her performance transcends to something much deeper and irresistible.

A veteran actress, Payton has a knack for adding depth to pop songs through both strong vocal technique and soulful storytelling. A mid-show performance of “Alfie,” originally performed by Dionne Warwick, is at once an admonishment and a plea. And in the show’s penultimate and final numbers, “Be Aware” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” respectively, she breaks the audience down just to put it back together in a hopeful, interactive coming-together.

Burt Bacharach. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

Under the musical direction of Daryl L.A. Hunt, the onstage quartet delivers skillful, pared-down arrangements of beloved classics. Bacharach’s music naturally inspires nostalgia by virtue of the sheer breadth of his decades-wide catalog. But with only a piano (Hunt), guitar (DeAnte Haggerty-Willis), bass (Michael Bowie), and drums (Carroll V. Dashiell, III), the jazzy arrangements breathe new, unpredictable life into tried-and-true classics. The quartet takes advantage of several strictly instrumental medlies and interludes to build anticipation from an increasingly expectant audience. And while each musician is given a chance to shine, Dashiell’s percussive contributions are most consistently noticeable and wonderful. The shimmery echo of cymbals never seems to cease through the 80-minute show, providing some dazzle to offset the moody hues of lighting designer Chris Stull’s jewel-toned ambiance.

Occasionally, however, Hunt leans on a synthesizer to evoke additional stringed instruments or the tinny electronic sounds of Bacharach’s 1980s-era work. But those incorporations are much less effective, detracting from the intimate feeling of the less electrified arrangements almost as much as the too-bright overhead lights that shine on the audience through the duration of the show. It is possible that the desired effect was ultimately diminished by several sound issues that marked the performance this critic attended.

Sure, the metalheads and classical fanatics among us may find themselves ambivalent to the ethereal melodies and square lyrics that are features of many of Bacharach’s songs. Regardless, the closeness of Payton’s engaging performance is likely to leave the gamut of audiences walking out into the cold Washington night with the feeling of having endured a long, encouraging hug. Isn’t that, after all, what friends are for?

Running Time: 80 minutes without an intermission.

That’s What Friends Are For: Nova Y. Payton Sings Burt Bacharachplays through February 4, 2024, in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($45), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.

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