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Born to be a star

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

The first time Nova Y. Payton played the role of Effie in "Dreamgirls," she was nominated for Philadelphia's 2006 Barrymore Award as the Best Lead Actress in a Musical. Now, she reprises that role in Signature Theatre's lavish new production of the smash Broadway musical.

"The show itself is great to be in, but the best part is that I have a lot in common with Effie," Payton said. "I've been in girl groups, learned about the music business and now have a son, as Effie did, so I know what it is to fight for my career in order to give him the best life possible.

"The first time, I was coming off a 10-month tour, so the role was a challenge. I'd grown up hearing my mother's Motown recordings and was familiar with the Supremes. I'd also heard 'I'm Not Going' and some of the other songs from the show, but I didn't know anything about the 1950s and 1960s and couldn't make connections. The characters in the show start out young. To understand how they grow, we sat around a table to discuss their lives. That helped me see similarities in my own life."

Payton credits her mother, grandmother and dance instructor with pointing her toward the stage. Even her name, Nova, predicted that she was destined to become a star. The Washington native began dancing class by age 3, after her mother saw how well she moved rhythmically. She loved dancing before audiences but limited her singing to church until her instructor explained that a dancer's career depends on a healthy body and bones, while singers can entertain for a lifetime.

Onstage
'Dreamgirls'
Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
When: Through Jan. 13
Info: $40 to $87 show, $100 New Year's Eve post-show party; 703-820-9771; signature-theatre.org

Within the past year, she has wowed Signature Theatre audiences as Motormouth Maybelle in "Hairspray," Melpomene/Medusa in "Xanadu" and Jewel in "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Winning the 2012 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical ("Hairspray") was an unexpected prize.

"I was shocked," she said. "I was one of the Helen Hayes singers that evening and was backstage waiting for the next number when Robert Aubry Davis called my name. I didn't have a speech ready because I never expected such a thing.

"I'm so blessed to be home and working at Signature again. Now that I'm jumping back into Effie, I understand what a fighter she was. I've made a true connection with her about love, her music career, and how she finds a way through hurt and disappointment. She takes such an emotional journey, you can't help being drained by the end of act one. After a brief rest, I'm ready for act two.

"Playing Effie has allowed me to make the role my own and to go into depth about what my own life has been. Because of her, I'll be coming back to Signature in March with 'Defying Gravity,' my one-woman show. It's my life through song."

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