Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Young Robin Hood
Matthew Gardiner's dynamic direction and choreography keeps the largely through-sung musical pounding and pulsating from beginning to end, ranging from the adrenaline rush of a talent contest to the tearful resolution.
As the 1981 musical by Tom Eyen (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) follows three friends through their pursuit of singing success in the 1960s and '70s, the entire cast keeps going relentlessly without time to rest or, apparently, breathe. Even the costume changes (designer Frank Labovitz is heavy on shine and glitz, from trapeze dresses to sequined hot pants) are choreographed, part of the action.
In the key role of Effie Melody White, Nova Y. Payton fulfills the promise she has shown in previous Signature roles (she received the 2012 Helen Hayes Award for her performance as Motormouth Maybelle in the company's production of Hairspray). Effie, leader of the singing group the Dreams, is curvy, large-voiced, and unwilling to compromise, and she must dominate the stage every time she appearsand Payton succeeds, capped by her exemplary rendition of the soul aria "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
The other standout performance is Cedric Neal as James Thunder Early, a hotheaded soul singer forced to give up his "authenticity" to become a crossover success. He swivels his hips at the women in the front row, he purrs and roars, and he transitions uncomfortably from a sleek silver suit to a white tailcoat that suggests a straitjacket.
Gardiner, along with co-choreographer Brianne Camp, has created some arresting visual moments in the dance numbers: the saxophonists dancing along with Jimmy and the Dreams; the building tension in "Steppin' to the Bad Side," as the Dreams' manager (Sydney James Harcourt) pursues success in unsavory ways; and the cinematic intercutting of onstage and backstage action in several scenes.
Adam Koch's scenic design and Chris Lee's lighting add to the sense of constant movement: the two-level set features sliding panels and an elevator, while the lights serve to focus audience attention on specific spots in the front, back, or sides.