How many times can you keep going to see productions of Dreamgirls?  If you can catch an incredible cast, spiffy direction, and voices that knock your socks off, I am telling you, keep going.  Signature’s production of Dreamgirls hits all the marks, and then some. 

The multiple storylines work on all levels and this production ratchets up the stakes to a fevered pitch.  Issues of class, race, and “crossover” music, interweave with aspects of love, lust, and hints of Svengali-like transformation of a newly minted girl singing group in the early 1960’s.  Effie’s got the voice, but Deena has the look and in the right hands of an unscrupulous, winner takes all manager, the group is repackaged to sell. So up the charts they climb, leaving bruised egos, old school sounds, and brutalized hearts along the way.  It’s a classic story of survival, almost Machiavellian where the ends benefited society with integrated performances and more radio airplay, via not so noble means.

Nova Y. Payton as Effie White (Photo: Christopher Mueller)

The role of Effie Melody White catapulted two Jennifers to stardom—Holiday on Broadway and Hudson in the movie, and it requires a powerhouse voice to do justice to the high octane musical numbers.  Nova Y. Payton who won the Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Supporting actress in a musical for last year’s Hairspray, also at Signature, delivers a full-throttle performance and takes no prisoners.

More high pitched than the usual deeper toned singers cast in the role, Payton defies the tradition by sneaking up on her songs with a softer-than usual tone that grows stronger and more insistent as she approaches the climax.  By then, she’s in full belt with a piercing and penetrating sound with dramatic command of her moment and doesn’t let go.  The final result is spine-tingling.  She’s that good.

Crystal Joy as Lorrell is bubbly fresh, innocent, and starry-eyed in love with anything pertaining to Jimmy “Thunder” Early, a popular R&B performer.  Lorrell also serves as the peacemaker, brokering the brewing animosity between Effie and Deena who is being groomed as the next “it” girl because of her glamorous appeal, natural poise and sophistication.

Hard working Shayla Simmons last seen as Shug Avery in Toby’s Color Purple, has the look, style and carriage of Deena which she pulls off without the powerhouse vocals of the rest of the entourage, including Kara-Tameika Watkins who steps in as Effie’s replacement.

The men are also wonderfully cast, starting with Sydney James Harcourt who plays Curtis, Effie’s love interest and surrogate manager, with sharp darting eyes and the deliberate mannerisms of someone so desperate to make it big that he’ll step over his mama if that’s what it takes. Harcourt’s cold, calculated delivery is nicely balanced by David Bazemore as C.C. White, the eager to please songwriting brother trying to stay wholesome in a cut-throat world.

Cedric Neal as  Jimmy, a whirling blur of hip-thrusting motion, who knows how to work a room and brings the audience along into his gyrations.  From his Godfather of Soul fake swoon to his Michael Jackson precursor, Jackie Wilson’s enticing vocals and razor sharp step work, Neal portrays the ultimate performer/entertainer who could charm paint off the walls, let alone a fresh young ingénue, eager for her big break.

Cedric Neal as Jimmy “James Thunder” Early (Photo: Christopher Mueller)

Cedric Neal as Jimmy “James Thunder” Early (Photo: Christopher Mueller)

Some black performers struggled to project an image of non-threatening wholesomeness to break into the white traditional music industry, as seen in the evolution of the Supremes.  The culturally significant messages are reflected in the evolution of two of the many memorable songs in the multiple prize winning collection—”Cadillac Car” and “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.”

When the fledgling black performers’ song is usurped by mainstream performers and repackaged as a Pat Boone style ballad, the song writers change tactics and create a dark implosive song that defies white-washing. The results are electrifying.

Highly Recommended
Closes January 13, 2013
Signature Theatre
4200 Cambell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $72 – $87
Tuesdays thru Sundays

The versatile ten-piece band led by music director Jon Kalbfleisch and conducted by pianist Darius Smith maintains a smooth sound going from classic soul to wild-eyed funk, to sophisticated and smooth ballads with ease.

Gowns and suits by costume designer Frank Labovitz sparkle with enough pizzazz to almost have lives of their own.  One lightening fast costume change by Effie borders on magical and must be seen to be believed. Even the hair deserves special recognition, with all the bouffants, flipped curls, and pomade induced looks of the 1960’s.

(l-r) Nova Y. Payton, Shayla Simmons and Crystal Joy. (Photo: Christopher Mueller)

Still, it’s the direction and choreography by Matthew Gardiner and co-choreographer Brianne Camp, that gives the show its gorgeous Broadway sheen and seals the deal for a return visit.  The dance numbers are filled with full-bodied athleticism, lifts, twists and turns, fused with jazz, pop, and funky beats performed with exuberant precision.  Gardiner’s fast pace keeps the joint jumping without feeling frenetic as several scenes happen simultaneously on the multi-level set, (scenic design by Adam Koch) framed by bright stage lights and even a hydraulic floating central platform for jaw-dropping effects, including entrances and in the final scene, the eye-popping exit to “Hard to Say Goodbye, My Love.”

So yes, from beginning to end, with superb designing, direction, and perfect delivery, Dreamgirls is a sparkling winner, ready to be enjoyed again—and again.


Dreamgirls . Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen . Music by Henry Krieger . Directed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Nova Y. Payton, Shayla Simmons,  Crystal Joy, David Bazemore, Sydney James Harcourt,  Cedric Neal, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Bus Howard, and Sean Maurice Lynch.Choreography by Matthew Gardiner and Brianne Camp. Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch . Darius Smith (Associate Music Director), Adam Koch (Scenic Designer), Chris Lee (Lighting Designer), Frank Labovitz (Costume Designer), and Matt Rowe (Sound Designer). Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson

Other reviews

Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Brian T. Carney . Washington Blade
Trey Graham . Washington City Paper
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Jolene Munch Cardoza . Washington Examiner
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Andrew Baughman . DCMetroTheaterArts
Kyle Osborne . Examiner

Debbie Minter Jackson About Debbie Minter Jackson

Debbie Minter Jackson is a writer and has performed in musical theater for decades. Originally from Chicago, she has hit stages throughout the Midwest and the Washington, D.C. area including the Kennedy Center in productions with the legendary Mike Malone. Her scripts have been commissioned and produced by the old Source Theater and festivals in New York. She is a member of the play reading and discussion group Footlights and the Black Women Playwrights’ Group. By day she happily works in a federal public health agency as a Senior Program Analyst and is in blissful partnership with her Bill.



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