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'Dreamgirls' is a dream come true at Signature


Let's just cut to the chase. You buy tickets to a show like Signature Theatre's "Dreamgirls" to see the raging ball of hubris that is one Miss Effie White. After three decades of sundry stage and film actresses portraying the diva, you want to know if someone can still surprise us, impress us, make us hear something we haven't heard before.

Wonder no more -- Washington audiences will be glad to learn that not only does Nova Y. Payton devour the larger than life role, she chews it up and spits it back out.

In short, you won't be disappointed.

That's because the Signature darling attacks Effie with an almost athletic gusto. She's a petite picture of the mega Motown mama, and it's easy to get lost in Payton's voice, easy to be charmed by the mischievous way she can turn around a note, spin it and effortlessly glide it back into its place. And as though her extraordinary interpretation weren't enough to celebrate, Matthew Gardiner's entire production sparkles and shines.

» Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
» When: Through Jan. 13
» Info: $40 to $91; 703-820-9771; signature-theatre.org

With more than 500 light bulbs beaming on stage, Chris Lee's lighting design is no small feat, and under those blinding rays Gardiner immediately establishes time and place for the musical epic that follows a fictional trio of black female singers trying to make it in the music business of the 1960s. Directed with cinematic elegance and smooth Motor City moves, it all builds to a sumptuous finale in the backstage tale of one young vocalist's rise and fall as "The Dreamettes" become The Dreams and those "dreamgirls" become a nightmare.

But that's what happens when the director is also the chief choreographer -- you get a sublime evening of theatre with a fluid sense of action. Using Harold Wheeler's original orchestrations, Jon Kalbfleisch expertly directs Henry Krieger's score.

Still, the melodies in "Dreamgirls" float down from musical theatre heaven, and Payton is ably assisted by Shayla Simmons and Crystal Joy, who ideally blend into the background and blossom in their own limelight at just the right moment. And while Sydney James Harcourt polishes up the shady side of Curtis, we are treated to Cedric Neal's thrilling turn as Jimmy "James Thunder" Early.

Aside from the dazzling array of performances on display, Frank Labovitz's stunning costumes and wig design are nothing short of magnificent, especially his literal take on Effie's "I Am Changing" solo. You can never tire of Payton's Effie -- with every trill of each note, every fancy foxtrot she dances with each syllable, her stubborn chanteuse is a victorious triumph over the memory of nearly every Effie there ever was.