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A CurtainUp DC Review


"'You got the same wig I got?"Deena
"Yeah."—Effie Melody White
" You got same the same dress I got?"—Deena Jones
"Yeah."—Effie Melody White
Then shut up! —Deena Jones

Cedric Neal as Jimmy Early
Signature has an impressive record of delving into Broadway’s musical repertoire and taking a fresh look at a show from decades past that was a critical failure but business success or vice versa. When it opened on Broadway in 1981 Dreamgirls prompted the then New York Times critic Frank Rich, aka the "Butcher of Broadway," to swoon, “When Broadway history is being made, you can feel it” he wrote. And so it was.

The story of the sung-through musical about a trio of singers from Chicago, called The Dreamettes, later the Dreams, is loosely based on that of the superstar threesome the Supremes from Detroit, Motown, whose rise to fame began in the 1960’s. Signature’s production is a period piece but not dated, an intelligent look at a time, the 1960’s, and its music — how toned down black soul music was being accepted and embraced by a white audience and how the blandness of white music (think Perry Como, Pat Boone) was losing its pop status. The beginning of crossover.

Although there are allusions to the changes coming about in the 1960’s due to the civil rights and women's movements, the musical is mercifully free of political dogma. Instead we are treated to a backstage look at the rise of black talent, acceptance of R & B and the compromises black artists had to make to be accepted. Holdouts paid dearly for their adherence to gospel, soul, and integrity and their careers faltered. For those who did what they needed to do to turn their talent into fame, money, glory, and celebrity the price was in personal terms as family and romantic relationships were compromised. If the story line reminds you of A Chorus Line, that’s no coincidence. The late, great Michael Bennett was the genius director/choreographer behind both shows.

There are three stars in Signature’s production. No, double that number. The first is Nova Y. Payton who plays Effie White, an original Dreamgirl who stubbornly stuck to her love of the old-style, gospel/soul based music as well as the man who discovered her. Payton has a strong but lovely voice, unforced, and affecting. Her rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” brings the house down but lacks the kind of over-sentimentality that reduces audiences to tears. Winner of a 2012 Helen Hayes Award for her performance as Motormouth Mabel in Hairspray at Signature, Payton is well on her way to being a Big Name beyond her hometown of Washington, DC.

Unfortunately the other Dreams are a bit of a snooze. They lack the charisma that would make their characters believable.

Kudos to director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Brianne Camp who have trained their actor/dancers to mimic the syncopated and stylized movements favored in the ‘60’s. Hands held aloft (like the Statue of Liberty), side-stepping and striking poses that were once sexy and now seem humorously quaint.

Adam Koch’s two-tier set and Frank Labovitz’s costumes that become more and more lavish and sophisticated as the singers rise to stardom are visually exciting. So is Chris Lee’s lighting, particularly when emphasizing Effie’s face against a completely dark stage.

While all of the above, plus a stage full of gifted male dancers, have contributed to a very successful and highly entertaining production, the performer who carries the show is the brilliant Cedric Neal as Jimmy “James Thunder” Early, a ringer for the late, great, over-the-top James Brown. He acts well, sings well and his dancing is mesmerizing. Also sexy. Very sexy. So what if he chews the scenery and flirts with individuals in the audience.

While the Dreamgirls book requires some leaps of faith, and the actors playing Effie’s brother the composer, C.C. White and the Dreams’ manager Curtis Taylor, Jr., lack the chops to make either part believable, and the Dreams other than Effie are not as startling as they need to be, the show still comes through loud and clear. Dreamgirls rocks.


Book by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Original Broadway Production Directed and Choreographed by Michael Bennett
Music Direction, Jon Kalbfleisch
Co-choreography, Brianne Camp
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner

Cast: Jay Adriel (Tru-Tone/Tuxedo), David Bazemore (C.C. White), Lauren Du Pree (Stepp Sister/Les Style), Daphne Epps (Stepp Sister/Les Style); Sydney James Harcourt (Curtis Taylor, Jr.); Bus Howard (Marty); Crystal Joy (Lorell Robinson); Sean-Maurice Lynch (Wayne/Tru-Tone/Tuxedo); Michael J. Mainwaring (Little Albert/Tuxedo); Cedric Neal (Jimmy “James Thunder” Early); Gannon O’Brien (Dave/Frank); Nova Y. Payton (Effie Melody White); Shayla Simmons (Deena Jones); Stephawn P. Stephens (Tiny Joe Dixon/Jerry/Mr. Morgan); Nickolas Vaughan (MC/Tuxedo); Kara-Tameika Watkins (Michelle Morris/Joann); DeMoya L. Watson (Stepp Sister/Les Style/Dance Captain); Tamara Young (Charlene/Les Style).
Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler
Scenic Design, Adam Koch
Costume Design, Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design, Chris Lee
Sound Design, Matt Rowe
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.
Performances November 13, 2012 through January 13, 2013. Tickets $40 to $87.
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Virginia 22206. Box Office, 703 820 9771; Administration, 571 527 1860.
Review by Susan Davidson based on November 28, 2012 performance.

Musical Numbers Act One: “I’m Looking for Something, Baby,” “Goin’ Downtown,” “Tiny Joe Dixon,” “Move (You’re Steppin’ on My Heart,” “Fake Your Way to the Top,” “Cadillac Car,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” “Party-Party,” “Baby-Baby,” “Family,” “Dreamgirls,” “Heavy,” “Walkin’ Down the Strip,” “It’s All Over,” “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going.”
Musical Numbers: Act Two: Reprise “Dreamgirls,” “I Am Changing,” You Are My Dream,” “Ain’t No Party,” “I Meant You No Harm,” “Rap,” “I Miss You, Old Friend,” “One Night Only,” “Chicago,” “Hard to Say Goodbye, (My Love).

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