Following Nova Y. Payton’s debut at Signature Theatre in the 2011 production of Shaiman and Wittman’s Hairspray, there was more than just a little buzz about the new theatre girl in town with the big voice who brought the house down with “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Her turn as Motormouth Mabel garnered a Helen Hayes Award and solidified her place at Signature. Since that moment, she’s taken on more than her share of diva roles at the Tony Award-winning theatre – Effie White in Dreamgirls (for which she’s earned yet another Helen Hayes nomination), Jewel in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Melpomene/Medusa in Xanadu. Each time numerous critics highlighted her powerful vocals and commanding stage presence.
Yet, despite all of this acclaim and attention, I still wondered if she could carry her own cabaret performance and engage with the audience as herself. I also wondered whether there was any real soul behind her voice. My questions were answered this week when Ms. Payton, who grew up in the DC area, made her solo cabaret debut at Signature.
The title of her self-conceived show? Defying Gravity: The Making of a Supernova. Bold, no?
Immediately upon entering the venue, it’s clear that this won’t be a normal cabaret. There’s a definite concept – and not just a concept that tenuously ties the songs together. One side of the stage has been transformed into a dressing room. The other plays host to a three-piece band (Hamilton Hayes on bass, Joel Tate on drums, and musical director Darius Smith on piano) and three backup singers (Iyona Blake, Lauren Du Pree, and Daphne Epps). Following a brief overture, the backup singers consider some basic questions, including “who is Nova Payton and what makes her so special?”
Enter Nova. The concept of the show, written and directed by Raquis Da’Juan Petree, becomes even clearer. She makes herself comfortable in her dressing room, does a few vocal warmups, and then sits down to prepare for her debut in a show titled Defying Gravity: The Making of a Supernova. Suddenly, she begins reminiscing out loud. In stories and songs we learn who she is, where she comes from, and what she’s learned as she’s faced challenges in her personal and professional life. The audience becomes witness to personal revelations about her childhood and long-standing love for entertainment of all forms, a failed girl group/record deal, a theatrical national tour or two, two marriages, and who she describes as the love of her life – her son.
As time passes, she discovers it’s time to go out on stage and make her debut, but only after receiving a pre-show peptalk from her obviously supportive mother. They share words and a song – the latter of which allows Nova’s mother to demonstrate her own vocal prowess in the classic hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (take my word for it; it works in context). In the last few moments, we witness her debut singing, of all things, “Defying Gravity” (from Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked).
At the core, the show’s concept is quite strong. The song selections and personal stories paint a complete picture of who Nova is and how she’s become the determined woman that she is today. At times, however, it can become quite indulgent and, well a bit schmaltzy – particularly as she details the lessons she learned in the love/romance department. Nonetheless, thanks to Nova’s natural charm, it’s easier to overlook these aspects.
Likewise, for the first half of the show there are more stories than songs. At first I found the imbalance slightly disconcerting because, after all, she’s seemingly known for her vocals. However, as the evening went on I began to appreciate that the songs – which varied from R&B classics and gospel to Broadway showtunes and pop – were simply forms of expressing her story. Given that they are so well-integrated into the stories she relays, they pack more of an emotional punch and are ultimately more meaningful than if sung one after another.
The show is a solid vehicle to showcase her talents. However, several moments stand out as being the most poignant and memorable for one reason or another.
She proudly showcases her strong belt in Howland and Dickstein’s “Astonishing” (from Little Women), Styne and Merrill’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (from Funny Girl), and, as previously mentioned, “Defying Gravity.” All are classic ‘I Want’ songs and although the latter two are particularly overdone by Broadway beltress-wannabees, I appreciate that Ms. Payton’s renditions combine technically proficient vocals with gritty and determined emotion that doesn’t seem forced or put on. They all capture her determined spirit and the use of a small choir from St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in DC on “Defying Gravity” is a nice, innovative touch.
A medley of songs from her outings at Signature, “I am Changing” from Dreamgirls, “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray, and “Evil Woman” from Xanadu, received a particularly powerful audience response at the performance I witnessed. They certainly showcase the intensity with which she performs.
The last highlight is more intimate, but no less important. Showcasing the songwriting talents of Signature’s own Matt Conner, she pays tribute to the victims of the Newton, Connecticut school shooting in the touching “New England Winter.” While I generally find such tributes a bit pandering – particularly if the performer is detached from the situation – it worked here. One reason is the set up. She explored her own emotions as a mother when she received a text/email about suspicious package being found at her son’s school and considered the pain those parents must have felt when they learned about the shooting or dealt with the loss of their children. Another reason it’s effective is the honest and heartfelt emotion she brings to the song.
Overall, this cabaret is a nice first attempt at a solo show. Once some pacing issues are worked out, it’s likely to get even stronger. In future shows, I’d like to see her step back from the microphone a bit and give us an unplugged number or two – the sound (Matt Rowe) was a bit too amplified for my taste – so that we might be able to appreciate her vocals in their most natural form. Otherwise, it’s certainly a memorable experience for those seeking powerful vocals backed by powerful emotions.
All remaining performances of Nova Y. Payton – Defying Gravity: The Making of a Supernova appear to be sold out but check with Signature’s box office for last minute cancellations. 703 820 9771.
Next up in Signature’s Cabaret series: Lost Songs of Broadway: 1970s, May 29 – June 1, 2013.