May 5, 2004

A portrayal worthy of a blues legend
By F. Kathleen Foley , Special to The Times

Seven times married, the late, great jazz singer Dinah Washington lived hard, drank even harder and died of an accidental diet-pill overdose at age 39.

Oliver Goldstick's bio-musical "Dinah Was," now at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, chronicles the brief but extraordinary career of this legendary diva, dubbed "Queen of the Blues" by her fans and peers. Yvette Freeman, perhaps best known to audiences as Nurse Haleh Adams on the long-running series "ER," re-creates the role that garnered her an Obie Award almost 10 years ago.

What a difference a decade makes. Those who saw Freeman in her sold-out Los Angeles run at the Coast Playhouse in 1996 will find that Freeman has undergone some radical changes in the interim. She has lost well over 100 pounds, a reconfigurement that, literally, gives a whole different weight to her performance. Ironically, Freeman's physical dwindling results in a far more expansive portrayal, sizzling with raw sexuality and unrequited need. That difference is most obvious in Freeman's torrid scenes with her languidly effective co-star Darryl Alan Reed, who played opposite her off-Broadway and on tour.

More expansive too is caryn desai's staging, which maximizes the possibilities of this sweeping three-quarter stage. Occasionally, desai lapses into the overly broad, but that failing is intrinsic in Goldstick's melodramatic and obvious script, which plays a lot like a movie-of-the-week with music.

The play commences in 1959 with Washington's arrival at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, where she is headlining - the first black female performer to do so. When Washington is refused a room and allotted a trailer off-site, she balks, setting up boozy camp in the Sahara lobby and threatening to cancel her sold-out engagement.

That incident serves as a somewhat cumbersome framing device for flashbacks to Washington's past, in which we meet Washington's unloving mother (Sybyl Walker), her dedicated manager-partner (Paul Avedisian) and the music producer (Peter Van Norden) who oversees her ascension to stardom.

All the actors, with the exception of Freeman, play multiple roles, and all are excellent, as are Tom Buderwitz's handsome set, Jeremy Pivnick's lighting, Paul Fabre's sound and Garry Lennon's costumes, which feature a lot of sumptuous animal furs from a pre-PETA era.

Musical director Lanny Hartley and an excellent live jazz combo ably back up Freeman, who could belt out a phone book and keep audiences rapt. In her newly energized turn, Freeman raises her mediocre material to a full-fledged star vehicle.


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