TX:Band: Lanny Hartley, Louie Spears, Mel Lee. Though “Dinah Was” tries to present more than a musical revue — specifically a story about the struggles of a black entertainer in the 1950s — it’s the mellifluous and boisterous song presentations that make this such a winner. Yvette Freeman in the lead role and Ellia English, first as Dinah’s mother and later as Las Vegas kitchen help, are nonstop stalwarts; their singing and acting resonate with truth and heartfelt sincerity. Freeman supplies an enthusiastic punch to 13 songs, imbuing each with emotion and intensity. Vocally, her modulation and technique are precise and accurate as she covers raise-the-roof gospel, lowdown blues and even the restrained pop of Washington’s greatest hit, “What a Difference a Day Makes.” English’s vocals are pure church-inspired, seemingly untarnished by any secular concerns, even when she delivers the bawdy “A Rockin’ Good Way.”
TX: TX:Douglas Sills and Blind Pig Prods. in association with Tina Treadwell Prods. present a play in two acts by Oliver Goldstick. Director, Bob Devin Jones; Although this is in no way representative of Washington’s impressive catalog of songs, this show deserves a cast album.
Story is told in flashbacks from the parking lot of the Sahara in Vegas. It’s 1959 and Washington, riding high on “What a Difference,” her first crossover hit , has arrived at the casino with her “executive assistant” Maye (Melody Garrett).
Expecting the red carpet treatment, Washington (known as “Queen of the Blues” for her string of R&B chart-toppers in the 1950s) is put off by the hotel’s manager (Bud Leslie), who explains that performers are required to stay outside the hotel in trailers. (Her neighbor is a dog act.)
As Washington puts up a fight, Sahara bigwig Spinelli (Peter Van Norden) tries to calm the situation with a $ 3,000 bonus that inspires reflection on Washington’s part.
The play then leapfrogs into flashbacks: Dinah’s mother (English) scolding her for wanting to
skip church to meet Billie Holiday; dating a jazz musician (Victor Love); a doctor’s visit; the recording of “What a Difference” and her desire to have her recordings marketed to a broader audience.
Eventually, Washington takes the Sahara stage and unleashes a stream of invectives, choosing what she sees as moral high ground over passive obedience.
Flashbacks establish central facts: Washington joined the choir at 7; became a soloist at 13; sang in Lionel Hampton’s band at 19; had seven husbands; fought a prescription drug problem, etc.
Factual tidbits, though, rarely flow as natural conversation and often distract from the play’s purpose — exploring the era’s racism, the strength of Washington’s character and her reliance on men who often fail her. Never do we learn about her music or how she came to be crowned “Queen of the Blues.”
With a booming voice and devil-may-care physical expressiveness, Freeman (“ER’s” nurse Haleh Adams) exposes Washington’s forcefulness and anger as well as her vulnerabilities and insecurity.
The emotional core of “Dinah Was” is offered early in a scene with English as her mother — it’s the one scene that carries weight equal to the song performances.
Unfortunately, Oliver Goldstick’s script barely fleshes out the male characters, particularly those portrayed with little conviction by Victor Love. The actor plays three essential characters — two lovers and a stranger — and never gets very deep into any of them, depicting each with little drive or direction.
Leslie and Van Norden do well in several one-dimensional supporting roles; Garrett is appropriately distressed as the problem-solving Maye.
Technical aspects are crisp and simple, as is Bob Devin Jones’ unobtrusive direction. Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s sparse set effectively uses three lights –“on air,””parking” and “Sahara”– and scrims to differentiate settings. Pianist Lanny Hartley leads the onstage trio with straight-ahead jazz instincts and a full-bodied sound.
Song selection works in this context but includes only three of her pre-’59 R&B top 10 hits. Inclusion of “Wheel of Fortune,” her 1952 hit that became a Kay Starr hit, certainly might have illustrated white artists having greater success with her material, and her R&B top 10-ers –“I Don’t Hurt Anymore,””Teach Me Tonight” and “That’s All I Want From You”– are as autobiographical as anything in the show.