The bittersweet lives of the great African-American blues singers of the first half of the 20th century followed similar patterns. Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington all scaled the heights of success with their artistry while fighting inner demons and falling victim to substance abuse. All three also died young. In certain ways, Oliver Goldstick's play about Washington, "Dinah Was," resembles Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," which charted Holiday's career triumphs and downward spiral. Both works sprinkle some of the respective performer's most famous songs around a loosely structured story of her life. Yet "Dinah" places less emphasis on the dark aspects, lifted by the depiction of Washington's resilient sense of humor and admirable defiance against injustices. The production is blessed by the luminous lead portrayal of Yvette Freeman (of TV's "ER"), who won an Obie for this performance in the show's off-Broadway run and appeared in other renditions, including a 1996 staging at West Hollywood's Coast Playhouse. Bedecked in furs, Freeman strikes a glamorous figure as the celebrated diva and sings some Washington hits ("What a Difference a Day Makes," "I Don't Hurt Anymore") to smashing effect. She receives superb support from the chameleon-like Sybyl Walker as various characters, including Washington's domineering mother and a shy waitress who Washington takes under her wing to help develop her singing talent, which gives Walker a chance to deliver a knockout rendition of "A Rockin' Good Way." Paul Avedisian, Darryl Alan Reed, and Peter Van Norden also demonstrate their versatility, playing various characters such as hotel employees, talent managers, and ex-husbands (Washington had seven). The show is beautifully produced, with kudos due for Caryn Desai's typically accomplished direction; Tom Buderwitz's tasteful set design; Jeremy Pivnick's evocative lighting; Garry Lennon's lush costumes; and the sublime efforts of musical director Lanny Hartley and his four onstage musicians. Although the singing and acting are more compelling than the sketchy narrative, this is an enormously entertaining and uplifting show that pays due tribute to a great American artist.
-- Les Spindle