Review: ‘Dinah Was’

White's phenomenal voice takes the starring role here: The chance to hear a singer of her warmth, power and versatility wrap her chords around "What a Difference a Day Makes," "This Bitter Earth" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," to name just a few of the good dozen songs she gets to perform, makes a visit to this Off Broadway hit, or even a second visit, more than worthwhile.

White’s phenomenal voice takes the starring role here: The chance to hear a singer of her warmth, power and versatility wrap her chords around “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “This Bitter Earth” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” to name just a few of the good dozen songs she gets to perform, makes a visit to this Off Broadway hit, or even a second visit, more than worthwhile.

In some of Washington’s signature tunes, White credibly evokes the singer’s vocal style, a slightly nasal tang that gave her voice its character. Others she makes wholly and spectacularly her own. White also rolls out the sharp cracks that enliven Goldstick’s portrait with a pleasurable relish. “When you’re done kissing him you better count your teeth,” she snaps of a no-good man.

What her performance currently lacks is unfortunately the single element that gives the play some distinction: the hard, cold edge that takes some of the gloss off the fairly familiar material.

The real demons that plagued Washington — man trouble (six husbands!), an indulgence in booze and pills, a debilitating struggle against a racist culture that both celebrated and degraded her — are redolent of the oft-told Billie Holiday story, for example, and it’s the slightly nasty, hunted defiance Washington met them with that gives Goldstick’s telling of her story its novelty.

White seems more inclined to present her own sassy, occasionally sentimental picture of Dinah Washington than the tough, even vicious one Goldstick intended. Goldstick’s Washington was her own worst enemy. White doesn’t seem to want to go there; she wants to remain the audience’s best friend. A little more gritty anger would help play and performer strike deeper chords.

The priceless Adriane Lenox remains an invaluable asset in a variety of supporting roles, each economically and meticulously defined. And her shot in the spotlight, playing a mousy hotel worker who blooms into a rollicking vocal star when Washington brings her onstage, still brings down the house.

Dinah Was

(MUSICAL; GRAMERCY THEATER; 499 SEATS; $ 47.50 TOP)

Production

Lillias White, Tony winner for her performance as a lady of the evening in "The Life," segues to the queen of the blues in Oliver Goldstick's "Dinah Was," the bio-musical about the troubled life of songstress Dinah Washington, who died at age 39, as the play shockingly reminds us.
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