Friday, November 30, 2012

Supreme Beings: “Dreamgirls” at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

By Mark A. Newman
Photos by Christopher Mueller

Many people whom I respect in the world of theatre cite Dreamgirls as one of their favorite shows if not their all-time favorite. This is one of those things I simply do not understand in the way I don’t get the popularity of “Two and a Half Men.” As the second musical in Signature’s 2012 – 2013 season, Dreamgirls is a show filled with immensely talented people stuck with singing unmemorable, mediocre songs.

Dreamgirls is an odd show; there are really only two standout roles (not performers, mind you): Effie White, played with show-stopping prowess by Nova Y. Payton and Jimmy “Thunder” Early portrayed with spirited cheeky glee by Cedric Neal. And then there are other characters who seem to spend most of their time waiting for Effie and Jimmy to hit the stage. So is the audience.

However, that is not an indictment of the talent on the stage of Signature’s Max Theatre; nothing could be farther from the truth. The cast is nothing short of amazing, but by now it is a familiar tale that we’ve all seen over and over again. What was new in 1981 seems somewhat trivial and lackluster in 2012. In all honesty, Henry Krieger’s score for the Broadway cult phenomenon Side Show was much more compelling than what is heard here (hint hint, Signature).

Matthew Gardiner’s direction is spot on as he sends our heroes – the Supremes-like divas, the Dreams – on their way through the ups and downs of the music industry. The show really kicks into gear in the middle of the first act when the full-figured Effie is pushed aside to make room for the Beyonce of her day, Deena Jones (the lovely Shayla Simmons) while Lorrell (Crystal Joy), C.C. – Effie’s brother who writes the group’s songs – (David Bazemore), and a last minute addition to the group, Michelle (Kara-Tameika Watkins) all get caught up in the roiling backstage antics. Most of these antics are engineered by the suave music operator Curtis Taylor, Jr. played with impeccable smarm and charm by the debonair Sydney James Harcourt.

A supporting character in this show would have to be the amazing costumes by Frank Labovitz who obviously let his inner Bob Mackie escape to create the lavish, sequin spewing dresses the Dreams wore, as well as the period-savvy attire worn throughout the show. A special kudos must go to the actresses and their dressers for the lightning speed in which they changed costumes almost two dozen times!

Despite the show’s highpoints, it feels like the first act is simply a prelude to Effie’s bring-down-the-house-and-the-rest-of-Shirlington-Village showstopper “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going).” Payton’s entire career could be boiled down to that cathartic moment when Effie lets everyone know what’s what. It’s a “come to Jesus” meeting all encapsulated in that single number. Payton was born to play the role of Effie White and it is a star turn that lights up the night.

Payton shines further in the second act as Effie attempts to make a meager comeback beginning in Chicago’s club scene and further progressing to the point she has a hit of C.C.’s showstopper ballad “One Night Only” that competes with the Dreams own disco version of the same song. Effie’s version is wrought with heartfelt emotion while Deena and the Dreams raise the show’s kitsch level to the extreme.

During this time the married Jimmy is carrying on with Lorrell as he moves from being a James Brown-like firebrand into a milquetoast Johnny Mathis clone. When Jimmy finally has his breaking point, the audience breathes a sigh of relief that the old Jimmy is back. But I guess that wasn’t enough for book writer Tom Eyen; that’s the last we see of Jimmy. He’s fired and sent packing. I guess we all know there’s no happy ending there.

By the time the Dreams have their farewell concert and Effie is brought in for one final number, you are relieved that the show is finally coming to a close. While the performances were stellar, the design was amazing, and the feel and pace of the production were top notch, I just can’t get over the mediocre score and less-than-dazzling book. The performers are the reason to see Dreamgirls because you will not see better diva moments on the DC stage for a long, long time.


Book & Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Directed & Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler
Music Director: Jon Kalbfleisch
Lighting designer: Chris Lee
Costume designer: Frank Labovitz
Sound designer: Matt Rowe
Scenic designer: Adam Koch
Co-Choreographer Brianne Camp

Tickets: Ticketmaster (703) 573-SEAT (7328)
Signature Theatre • 4200 Campbell Avenue • Arlington, VA 22206

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