Relive the glory and glamour of Motown at Signature Theatre

Relive the glory and glamour of Motown at Signature Theatre
(Christopher Mueller)

By Jordan Wright

Riddle me this: Do goose bumps get goose bumps? Well, yes, if Nova Payton is singing her pipes out.

Payton plays Effie White in Signature Theatre’s production of “Dreamgirls” — a career-establishing role made famous by Jennifer Hudson in the Broadway and film versions.

So there’s a lot on the line.

Payton not only nails it, but also makes the role her own in songs like the poignant “I Am Changing” and the earthshaking “I’m Not Going.” I promise the powerful vocals, muscular hepcat and cool-kitty dancing, and lavish costumes won’t disappoint.

There is so much to like that it’s hard to pinpoint why some moments seem flat. Here’s a show with a theatrical pedigree — evidenced by six Tony Awards — a cast brimming with talent and a plot tear-drenching enough to melt the hardest heart. So what’s wrong with it? Not much, but we’ll get to that.

The story centers on a black girl group from Chicago and their meteoric rise to fame and fortune. You’ll immediately recognize them as The Supremes, and though the story is legally defined as “loosely based on them,” there are too many parallels to count.

The three women, known as the Dreamettes, start out as runners-up in a rigged talent show at the Apollo Theater but soon are urged to tour as backup singers for the velvet-voiced, slick-dancing, egocentric singer Jimmy Early, brilliantly played by Cedric Neal.

“I don’t do oohs and aahs,” Effie complains, though her partners, Deena Jones (Shayla Simmons) and Lorrell Robinson (Crystal Joy), quickly overrule her, and they hit the road. As the women rocket to superstardom, they go through a series of business challenges, jealousies, diva meltdowns and heartbreaks.

Costume designer Frank Labovitz chronicles the trio’s ascent with gorgeous electric-hued gowns that increase in fabulousness with miles of chiffon and Lurex stitched with tons of ostrich feathers, spangles and sequins. As for the menswear, shiny sharkskin suits neatly define the times.

The show is set in the early ’60s, an era when the pop charts were controlled by big record labels and disc jockeys were known to take payola. Soul and black R&B were a hard sell, and radio stations stuck to “white” music — black music performed by white performers.

It was a hard road for all black musicians until the Motown sound began to dominate the airwaves. “Dreamgirls” captures the essence of that Berry Gordy/Phil Spector period thanks to Krieger’s music. His 25 glorious numbers are dead in the center of that unforgettable sound.

Set designer Adam Koch created the painted black set and mechanical stage, which is so cavernous that at times it seems to swallow the cast. It is only when the women sashay onto center stage with increasingly spectacular wigs, jewels and gowns that it becomes a frame for their glamour.

Thankfully it’s all about the music and dancing since actor Sydney James Harcourt’s portrayal of the Dreamettes’ impresario, Curtis, is not convincing either as a Svengali or a Lothario. The role calls for their agent — and Deena’s boyfriend — to embody a self-centered, slimy, backroom double-dealing manipulator, and Harcourt lacks the smarminess to pull it off.

Matthew Gardiner does double duty as director and choreographer, and you can’t find fault there. The dancing is stellar, particularly for Neal’s Jimmy, who shakes, rattles and rolls ’till the cows come home in the number “Baby-Baby.”

See it, love it and spend some time backstage with the Dreamettes back when Motown was the pinnacle of the music world.