The holiday season brings out the crowd-pleasing shows. Signature Theatre gives us a vibrant revival of Dreamgirls, the story of a Supremes-style girl group navigating their way to fame and the heartbreaking consequences of such a rise. The book by Tom Eyen and score by Henry Krieger provide terrific roles for an ensemble briskly directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. The simple two-story set designed by Adam Koch provides a platform that dazzles the eyes whether giving a glimpse of show-biz from the wings or the backstage drama. The incredible costumes designed by Frank Labovitz are an architectural marvel. As pointed out in an interview in the Washington Post, the Dreamgirls have eleven performance costumes some of which require very fast changes. One of those changes is six seconds. Using a variety of techniques from layering to having an evening gown double as a top those quick changes flow. If an occasional glimpse of a foundation garment happens it can be forgiven given the monumental task at hand.
Signature Theatre has cast this show with an incredible ensemble of performers who do more than justice to this score. David Bazemore grows from mild-mannered songwriter to a mature man capable of standing up for himself. Cedric Neal burns up the stage as Jimmy and his character's flameout is sad to watch as Mr. Neal does an excellent job of charming the audience during all of his numbers. As Curtis, Sydney James Harcourt has all the persuasive charm of a snake. Curtis can be a one-note slime ball in lesser hands, but Mr. Harcourt makes you see Curtis as genuinely caring for the ladies in the beginning. He manages to make Curtis less a hissable villain than the misguided controlling Svengali that is the character's actual nature.
As for the ladies themselves, like the Supremes there are four rather than three. Kara-Tameika Watkins as the replacement Michelle Morris is the least developed character, but she exudes charm and wins the audience over as her situation is not her fault. Crystal Joy as Lorell is sweetly naive, but gains inner strength as she must handle her disappointments as she breaks free from Jimmy Early's spell. Shayla Simmons Deena" is physically gorgeous. Ms. Simmons shows us there is much more to Deena than a pretty face and lovely voice. Deena's journey from shy mama's girl to lead singer to a woman capable of breaking free from Curtis' control is simply wonderful to watch. If that was the main story of Dreamgirls she would have nailed all the emotional points. This is not Deena's story. It's Effie's.
Effie White has been an award-winning role for many actresses. Do not be surprised to see Nova Y. Payton add herself to that list. Her Effie is a force of nature. A woman of strength who knows that she is not one to stay in the background. Yet Effie is complex, occasionally not likable as she is always thinking of herself. When Effie reaches the crucial point of the show, Ms. Payton's rendition of "(and I am telling you) I'm Not Going" is electric, heartbreaking and powerful.
Dreamgirls is being performed in The Max theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through January 13, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.signature-theatre.org.