MAY 2, 2012 | BY ELLYN WEXLER
More than seven years before her birth, Nova Y. Payton’s fate was sealed. The DC native has proven her mother’s prescience in deciding to name her not-yet conceived daughter after a bright star. Payton just received a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Musical, for her role in Signature Theatre’s production of Hairspray. Following that tour de force, Payton will take the Signature stage in Xanadu, opening May 8, and Dreamgirls in November.
Oddly, the young Payton intended to be a dancer, taking her first bow at age 3 as a dancing flower in a production of Santa Comes to Cabbage Patch Land. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be on stage,” she says, noting that choosing dance was probably an effort to differentiate herself from her gospel singer mom. Payton followed that dream through her Catholic school years, performing ballet, jazz, tap, modern and liturgical dance; she was on the cheerleading squad and a member of the dance team as well as school and church choirs.
Ironically, Payton’s dance instructor persuaded her to pursue her vocal talents. “My teacher always added an element of singing to my dances,” Payton says. “She told me ‘You have a gift for dance and song. A dancer’s life is not long, but you’ll always be able to sing.’”
Shortly afterwards, Payton and six other teens started a singing group called Sixx. “We thought the name was cool because we were six plus one,” she says. When their number dwindled to four and then three, they changed the name to Visions. The teens, managed expertly by their parents, performed “all over,” Payton says, citing the Black Family Reunion, Constitution Hall, the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, Freedom Plaza, even President Clinton’s first inaugural ball.
After high school, Payton studied at New York City’s American Music and Dramatic Academy, then returned to DC to audition and work as a vocal coach. The auditions led to a 10-month tour in Smokey Joe’s Café out of New York; an extended run of Dreamgirls in Philadelphia for which she earned a Barrymore Award nomination as best lead actress in a musical, and a tour with 3 Mo’ Divas. Michael Bobbitt cast her in Adventure Theatre’s The Happy Elf and Washington Savoyards’ Ain’t Misbehavin’.
She also did background singing for her lifelong friend Roberta Flack, who she credits with “teaching me how to sustain myself in this music business, how to keep myself grounded.”
Payton is pleased to be doing three shows at Signature, which she describes as “a place you can really feel at home, a very friendly, comfortable and supportive environment.”
In turn, the folks at Signature are happy to have her. Eric Schaeffer, who directed Payton in her award-winning Hairspray role, calls her “a very good collaborator . . . [who] is willing to try anything in the rehearsal room . . . Nova is always prepared for the work.”
Schaeffer saw a perfect fit immediately. “We auditioned a number of actresses for Motormouth Maybelle, but Nova came in with the sass and pipes that just captured her spirit in a unique way,” he remembers. “It’s always exciting when you are at an audition and you instantly know — she’s the one!”
Matt Gardiner, who will direct Signature’s Xanadu and Dreamgirls, found Payton “electrifying” in Hairspray. “Her ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ left many both on and off stage in tears. I can’t say I remember the song in any other production,” he says. “Nova made it the highlight of Hairspray, and as has been said by many, one of the great moments on a Signature stage. That’s not simply because of her voice, but because she connected to the song in a very honest way.”
Gardiner thinks Payton “seemed like a natural choice for Melpomene in Xanadu, a character that needs to own the stage when she is on it.” As for Dreamgirls, he says, “Nova Payton is the reason to do Dreamgirls, and she is what fuels my desire to conceive a new production of Dreamgirls for Signature Theatre. People are going to be blown away by her Effie, I promise you that.”
Thus far, Payton’s favorite role has been Nell Carter in Ain’t Misbehavin’. People have always compared her singing with Carter’s, she says, and the intimate, funny and sad musical suits her. In the future, she would love to do Once on This Island, The Wiz and Little Shop of Horrors.
Receiving the Helen Hayes Award was unexpected. “I was so shocked, I didn’t even hear my name,” she says. “I didn’t prepare anything to say.”
But the fact that Nova Y. Payton is living up to her name is no surprise to her mother or to her audiences. “I’m so happy doing musical theater,” Payton says. “I don’t want anything to change.”
Source URL: http://theatrewashington.org/content/nova-y-payton-star-shines-bright