May 7, 2004
'Dinah' hits high notes with passion
Review: Yvette Freeman is dynamic in a Long Beach staging about singer Dinah Washington's troubled life.

By ERIC MARCHESE Special to the Register

SHE SINGS: Yvette Freeman leads way in musical elements that give "Dinah Was" its emotional punch, critic Eric Marchese says.

Known as "Queen of the Blues," black American singer Dinah Washington fought fiercely for professional recognition, making her life story seemingly a natural for stage or screen. "Dinah Was," a stage biography with music, was sparked nearly a decade ago by a chance conversation between screenwriter and playwright Oliver Goldstick and television and stage actress Yvette Freeman, a lifelong devotee of jazz in general and Washington's music in particular.

With Freeman in the title role, and capturing an Obie Award in the show's Off-Broadway run, "Dinah Was" uses several of the singer's biggest hits to illuminate Washington's turbulent life and career. Directed by caryn desai, the show's latest incarnation, at International City Theatre in downtown Long Beach, proves a durable and moving property. In its depiction of Washington's unhappy love life and battles with the bottle, a weight problem and the evils of segregation, the singer's story may emanate clichés - yet Freeman, dynamic as Dinah, delivers a tour-de-force performance that makes "Dinah Was," for all its melodramatic elements, eminently watchable. "Dinah Was" opens in 1959, as the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas awaits Washington's arrival. Though she's the main draw for several sold-out performances, she's expected to stay in a parking-lot trailer and use a rear entrance to access the stage. Washington camps out in the lobby in protest of such blatant hypocrisy, starting a drinking binge. She recalls the birth of her career, in 1942 as a singer with Lionel Hampton; her love affair with cocky sax player Boss (Darryl Alan Reed); and many another high- and lowlight from years of touring, which took her from clubs in Chicago, Detroit and New York to a performance for the British crown in London. This structure makes "Dinah Was" a memory play, with the show's dozen or so songs seamlessly interspersed.

Freeman depicts Washington as blunt, earthy and aggressive - her habit of getting into public scrapes, we gather, is a way of expressing her seething anger toward the white establishment. When she's told her style is "distinctive, raw, gut-wrenching," she views the blues as a "cage" and the industry's attempts to limit her crossover appeal as "trying to keep me in my place." Indeed, as scripted by Goldstick, Washington always does seem to get the shaft, which fuels her resentment and instigates further confrontations. Though the script shows us Washington's self-loathing, nothing appalls her more than the fact that even talented, successful blacks are still treated so badly.

In performing Washington's songs, Freeman prowls the stage with vicious energy. Her version of "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," the singer's trademark, is funky and low-down. In "I Won't Cry Anymore," she's at first dignified, then defiant. The Mercer-Arlen standard "Come Rain or Come Shine" is given an upbeat treatment. "A Rockin' Good Way" is a good, hard-hitting R&B number; "I Don't Hurt Anymore" a rousing gospel song. "I Wanna Be Loved" is soft and measured, aching with quiet passion. The play's allusions to her many ex-husbands prove that Washington did want to be loved - but, obviously, on her own terms. All of the song scenes feel authentic, and desai's staging catches the dark, smoky feel of the club scene. Musical director Lanny Hartley, Freeman's husband, conducts the four-piece jazz combo from the piano on a bandstand that slides forward during the songs, backward for the dramatic vignettes. Tom Buderwitz's set captures the Arabian motif of the old Sahara hotel, augmented by large, colorful logos and images over the recessed proscenium.

With a harsh, strident edge, Reed's Boss is a kindred spirit to Washington, while his colorful, boozy Chase is honest and down-to-earth. Paul Avedisian is conciliatory as Washington's white agent, Rollie, and harried as Sahara flunkie Fricke. Peter Van Norden is despicably racist as profanity-spouting Sahara manager Joe Spinelli, and beaming and effusive yet blunt as Mercury Records mogul Sam Greenblatt. Sybyl Walker makes her trio of roles distinctive and memorable: As Dinah's young assistant, she's the voice of reason. As a Sahara kitchen worker, she's bashful in her worship of Washington. Most pointed is Walker's work as Washington's practical, skeptical Mama, whose doubts nag Dinah even at the height of her success.

Almost of necessity, much of Goldstick's text screams of contrivance - Washington dredging up the skeletons buried in her past, aghast to learn her son doesn't recognize her voice over the phone, or telling Boss that when onstage, she likes to be "in control - it's about the only place I am." For every such moment, though, is one where Washington credits Billie Holiday for having "made me dream tall." Like Holiday, Washington died too young, expiring in late 1963 after mixing booze and diet pills. Of course, her music lives on in countless recordings - and through "Dinah Was".