MAY 6, 2004

DINAH WAS
Reviewed By Brad Schreiber

*CRITICS PICK

The singer Dinah Washington, known as "Queen of the Blues," reputedly once emptied a Los Angeles nightclub after firing a gun at one of the chorus line dancers whom she suspected of having an affair with her man. Whether it is so or not, it is certainly believable, and this musical narrative of her life, which ran at the Coast Playhouse in 1996 and garnered Yvette Freeman an Obie in New York, has the ring of entertaining and heartfelt authenticity.

It is certainly about a woman who was larger than life, embraced every form of music from gospel and R&B to symphonically tinged pop, married seven times, and demanded control of her career when black male artists, let alone female ones, dared not raise the ire of labels. With tremendous swagger, vulnerability, and in-your-face lust for life, Freeman fills Dinah's shoes and her signature white fur coat. In a plot strand running through the evening about her refusing to stay in a trailer out back, when Dinah first enters the lobby of the Sahara Hotel she is asked by a nervous hotel manager (Paul Avedisian) if she is Dinah Washington. "I sure as hell ain't Dinah Shore," she snaps, and Freeman has us in her grasp. But the actor deserves special kudos for her singing, capturing Washington's smoky, punchy, clipped phrasing, belting out a sexy duet of "You Got What It Takes" with paramour and musician Boss (Darryl Alan Reed) or utterly breaking our hearts, after hers has had the same fate, with the Act One closer, "I Wanna Be Loved."

Playwright Oliver Goldstick manages to telescope a great deal of Washington's life into the work, and except for a few brief passages that seem schematic, he does a top-notch job. His dialogue has plenty of salty repartee, as when the diva, desperate to cross over to pop stardom a la Nat King Cole, insists to her label president (Peter Van Norden), "I can sound whiter than Pat Boone's behind." And on the other hand, when longtime and long-suffering assistant (Sybyl Walker) tries to convince Dinah not to camp out in the lobby of the Sahara, she snarls, with the forceful accumulation of a life of struggle and accomplishment, "Ain't nothin' but a plantation with slot machines."

Director Caryn Desai has reached the heights with this polished and sharp production, with a fine five-piece band headed by keyboardist Lanny Hartley, a snappy set including signposts of Dinah's life by Tom Buderwitz, and stylish costuming thanks to Garry Lennon. Each of the actors backing Freeman plays two or three roles; Walker, when she's a Sahara Hotel kitchen worker, holds her own, singing "A Rockin' Good Way" with the magnificent Freeman, who is as close as we can get, in the flesh, to the whirlwind of talent, spirit, and emotion that was Dinah.