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A CurtainUp Review

Dinah Was
By Allan Wallach

Now Dinah Was is raising the roof of a new theater. The musical biography of the great rhythm and blues singer Dinah Washington, which started out at the Williamstown Theater Festival and moved on to acclaim at Off-Broadway's WPA Theater during the past season, has inaugurated the Gramercy Theater, a former movie house dating back to 1936. Renovated as a comfortable 499-seat theater on East 23rd Street, the Gramercy can become a valuable addition to Off-Broadway.

As before, the main reason to see Dinah Was is Yvette Freeman, as the woman who was known as the `"Queen of the Blues" during her often-turbulent career. Whether belting out 13 songs in her gutsy, rafter-rattling voice or making earthy wisecracks, Freeman is a captivating performer.

The show is also blessed with another outstanding R&B singer, Adriane Lenox. Although she only gets to do one number, teaming up with Freeman on ``A Rockin' Good Way,'' she makes you wish the author, Oliver Goldstick, and director, David Petrarca, had found ways to use her singing more. Not that Lenox is offstage for long stretches: she plays four roles, as Washington's ``executive assistant,'' her mother, a waitress and a kitchen worker at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. But only in the last of these, when the employee is coaxed onstage by Washington and is transformed from timid to torrid, does Lenox get to reveal the range of her talent.

When the singing stops, Dinah Was isn't nearly as compelling. Goldstick's play a dutiful trek through Washington's life, making stops that could have been lifted out of any generic biodrama. There's the familiar complaint about a lack of love in childhood, the desperate striving for approval, and the routine quarrels with a parent, managers, lovers and others, all coated with a light dusting of social issues. Various strands are picked up and quickly dropped, in a schematic story that uses flat pronouncements to develop character.

The framing device is Washington's 1959 arrival at the Sahara Hotel, where she is to become the first black performer to headline a show on the Strip. But when a flunky tells her that she'll have "special accommodations"' in a trailer out back, and must use the kitchen entrance to the hotel, she angrily sits down on a suitcase and refuses to budge. The hotel, she declares angrily, "`ain't nuthin' but a plantation with slot machines."'

The show returns to this scene far too many times. Between visits to the lobby, it provides occasional flashbacks to her mother's apartment in Chicago, where the future Queen of the Blues grew up as plain Ruth Jones. Bickering with her disapproving mother, Washington sets a self-pitying tone with complaints about the musician-father who ignored her (`"Daddy put a guitar on his knee instead of me").

This, apparently, is meant to explain Washington's need for so many husbands and lovers, as well as her hard drinking and drug taking. One actor, Darryl Alan Reed, stands in capably for men who done her wrong in her emotional life. He plays a lover who makes fleeting appearances (he keeps his shoes on during lovemaking to speed his getaways) and an ex-husband whose main function in the story is to reveal bits of information.

Other men in Washington's life are played by Bud Leslie, as her put-upon manager, and Vince Viverito, most importantly as the Sahara's bigoted manager and as a record executive who doesn't think Washington has the kind of appeal to become a popular crossover artist. She quickly proves him wrong with the recording of her signature song, "What a Difference a Day Makes."

By Oliver Goldstick
Directed by David Petrarca
With Yvette Freeman (Dinah Washington), Adriane Lenox, Bud Leslie, Daryl Reed and Vince Viverito
Set design by Michael Yeargan
Costume design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge
Sound design by Laura Grace Brown
Choreography by George Faison
Musical supervision, orchestration and arrangements by Jason Robert Brown
Musical direction and additional arrangements/orchestrations by Lanny Hartley
Gramercy Theater, 127 E. 23rd Street
Performances at Gramercy began 5/28/98; opened June 9, 1998
Reviewed June 9 by Allan Wallach

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