When Arlington's Signature Theatre concluded its run of "Hairspray" last year, they knew that within those voices was one special voice that needed its own vehicle. So, when the Signature Theatre located at the Village at Shirlington was planning its next musical, Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner knew that the voice of Nova Y. Payton needed to be showcased in a meaningful way. The impetus to revive Michael Bennett's 1982 Tony Award-winning Broadway smash-hit, "Dreamgirls" was born, and Payton was cast in the lead role of Effie White, the role made famous by Jennifer Holliday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson on film.
"Around this time last year we were doing a production of 'Hairspray' at the Signature and we were in the process of planning our coming season," Gardiner, who is both choreographer and director of 'Dreamgirls' explained. "In our discussion with Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director, the idea was brought up and it seemed fitting for Signature and what we wanted to do with the season. Not only that, we thought it was perfect for Nova. The decision was made because of Nova."
One of the missions of the Signature Theatre, a fixture for culture in the Northern Virginia community since 1990, is to showcase local talent, and in this production of "Dreamgirls," the local talent shines. Telling the much-loved tale of a girl group's rise to stardom in the 1960s, Signature Theatre's production doesn't exaggerate, but rather, makes the best use of regional actors. Along with Payton's powerhouse voice, the Dreams include Shayla Simmons (Deena Jones) whose work has taken her on an international gospel tour in addition to local productions of "The Color Purple," "Sophisticated Ladies," and "Beehive, the '60s Musical." Daphne Epps, who is usually in a supporting role as one of the rival girl groups, The Stepp Sisters, stepped into the role of Lorell Robinson, the third Dream on the evening this reporter attended.
Other cast members include Bus Howard, a mainstay in African-American theater in the region having appeared at the Kennedy Center and the Arena Stage, and also played Off-Broadway with the Negro Ensemble Company. Howard takes on the role of a likeable and earnest Marty, the Dreams first manager who goes on to follow Effie's character when the original Dreams break up.
Other cast members, both local and those who are not from this area, do an admirable job of recreating this popular play with all of its famous songs, such as "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going," "Steppin' to the Bad Side," and "Family."
When the season for Signature Theatre is over, an open call for Equity and Non-Equity performers is conducted, and local talent responds.
"The hope is that we are going to, through the talent that we are already aware of or through these open calls, use local talent. We spend a lot of time seeing people from the area and picking out those roles. Only when it became apparent that we couldn't fill all the roles from here did we look elsewhere. Only three members of the cast are from outside of D.C.," Gardiner added.
And the local audience approves with overwhelming response to the show and glowing reviews. In fact, the demand for this production was so profound that the theatre extended the run through January 13, to fill the requests for tickets.
"I attribute (that response) to the talent involved, from everyone from Nova Payton to the design team that we hired," Gardiner said. "And there is the cast, of course. I think it showcases a lot of people's abilities really well."
Signature Theatre not only highlights the talents of local actors, but it also helps to create them. The theatre's free outreach programs provide resources for at-risk teens and non-traditional theatergoers. Signature Theatre's targeted outreach has paid off by attracting a diverse student following. The Signature In The Schools program, for example, reaches Hispanic, White, African-American, and Asian high school students (ages 14 to 18) in Northern Virginia.
In addition to its mainstage shows, Signature is also presenting yearlong series of cabarets. Discount subscription packages, starting at three shows, are available.
The Signature Theatre's state-of-the-art location at 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va., is conveniently located just across the river in Shirlington Village. Call (703) 820-9771 for tickets or visit www.signature-theatre.org.