Start unpacking the congruities between the 31-year-old musical Dreamgirls, running now in an impressively glamorous staging at Signature Theatre, and the brand-new drama-with-songs Pullman Porter Blues at Arena Stage, and you’ll discover more than just the actor Cleavant Derricks. He was Broadway’s original James Thunder Early—the James Brownish R&B star whose decline and marginalization is one of Dreamgirls’ sad story arcs—and he’s playing a stiff-backed railway porter and union organizer in Cheryl L. West’s stirring and resonant play.
But that’s just happenstance. What’s more interesting is the extent to which these two stories, written two decades apart, one set in the realm of ’60s and ’70s entertainment and one on the iron roads of the 1930s, have similar things to say about the compromises and sacrifices required of African Americans working across the color line. Whether it’s a Pullman Porter putting in a round-the-clock shift but still beaming deferentially for the benefit of his all-white passengers or a singer smoothing out his raw, soulful sound for the sake of reaching a wider (read: whiter) audience, the characters in both shows are pressed by institutions, expectations, and aspirations to contort themselves painfully into something they’re naturally not.
Complicated concepts of family suffuse both stories too. In Dreamgirls, it’s a brother-and-sister team, C.C. and Effie White, who with two friends set out from Chicago to Harlem to make it at the Apollo. C.C. writes the songs, while vocal powerhouse Effie, backed by Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson—together they bill themselves as The Dreamettes—sings the close, cooing harmonies of the Motown style. As their little clan grows more popular, a slick manager begins to remake them into a more mainstream-friendly package, and when Effie resists, the others close ranks and plead with her to put aside her own ambitions aside for the sake of their musical family. It works—but only for a while.
Pullman Porter Blues By Cheryl L. West Directed by Lisa Peterson; Co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theatre at Arena Stage to Jan. 6
In Pullman Porter Blues, it’s three generations of Sykes men who form the backbone of the story: paterfamilias Monroe (Larry Marshall), second-generation railroad man Sylvester (Derricks), and young Cephas (Warner Miller), who’s supposed to be in college but who’s gotten ideas in his head about the romance of the rails. Each has a different sense of himself in relation to the rigid institution that is the Pullman Company, with its thick rulebook and its exploitative wage and work standards, each has his own idea of how best to negotiate the minefield of challenges they all face—and with two different father-son dynamics in play, things get tense pretty regularly.
But what, you’ll want to know, of how these stories go down as theater? Happily, they go down pretty smoothly. Pullman snags its audience early with richly sung renditions of a railway work song and a couple of solid blues—and that’s before the redoubtable E. Faye Butler rolls in on a luggage cart, skirt hiked up to her knees as the soused songstress Sister Juba, to inform the assembled porters in no uncertain terms that “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” When she’s wrapped up, the audience is, too—the evening’s a done deal from there.
The plot—which weaves in the storied 1937 bout that gave “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis the heavyweight boxing title, along with subplots involving a hick stowaway, an unrepentant racist of a conductor suspicious of Sylvester’s unionorganizing efforts, and the present-day ramifications of a grim experience from Sister Juba’s past—might sound a little overstuffed. But it clicks along smoothly, and the portrait it paints of an important slice of African-American history is intriguing enough that many audiences will feel compelled to dig deeper. Most gratifying is that the characters—and what’s at stake for them—feel real and immediate.
Dreamgirls, meanwhile, is a smashing success in Matthew Gardiner’s confident production, with a career-making performance from Nova Y. Payton as Effie and a wickedly assured turn from Sydney James Harcourt as her manager and sometime lover Curtis Taylor Jr. He’s the man who takes The Dreamettes up the musical ladder, turning them into The Dreams along the way—and the man who puts the stubborn, fractious Effie in the corner when it becomes clear that the prettier, more malleable Deena (Shayla Simmons) will have more mainstream appeal. That’s how we get to the desperate anthem “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” in which Effie pours out her need for connection—to the man she’s already alienated, to the audience she’s terrified of losing—in a river of musical theater’s most powerful noise. Payton’s rendition, sung more musically and with less growl than Jennifer Holliday’s iconic original, still brings the house down with its pyrotechnics and its passion.
Cedric Neal makes Jimmy Early’s sex-drenched swagger mischievously charming, so it’s easy to believe that a sweet young thing like Crystal Joy’s Lorell might fall for him hard enough to spend eight years as the girl on the side. And the show’s tech—from Adam Koch’s impressive multitiered set, with its center-stage hydraulic elevator, to Chris Lee’s deeply layered lighting scheme, to Frank Labovitz’s lavishly over-the-top parade of increasingly spangly costumes—is as certifiably first-rate as Jon Kalbfleisch’s tight 10-piece band.
Ultimately, Dreamgirls is still a good show, not a truly great one—the lyrics haven’t all aged well, and it raises too many issues that don’t get satisfyingly sorted out—but when it’s intelligently staged, handsomely designed, and sung like the cast’s life is on the line, it’s a hell of an entertainment. And at Signature, Gardiner and company are hitting every last one of those targets dead-on.
Want to take your dance company to Bangkok on the District’s dime? You’re in luck. The D.C. Commission on the Arts Humanities has unveiled five new arts grants programs for 2013, and one of them provides one-time funding up to $20,000 for “cultural exchange and diplomacy” between D.C. and one of its sister cities.