`Dinah Was' is more than mere cabaret

Review: E. Faye Butler brings energy and majesty to Dinah Washington's songs in this multi-faceted production.

April 06, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Part nightclub act and part biographical drama about the late singer Dinah Washington, "Dinah Was" has been produced at regional theaters from coast to coast and off-Broadway.

But it's difficult to imagine a more appropriate setting than the cabaret configuration of Center Stage's Head Theater. Playwright Oliver Goldstick is aiming for more than an evening of cabaret, however. Washington's life was tumultuous, and her story is replete with themes of racism and sexism. And yet "Dinah Was" is more sheer entertainment than stirring drama.

This is not to suggest, however, that lead actress E. Faye Butler's impressive vocal abilities aren't stirring. Exuding the domineering presence the role requires, Butler sings more than a dozen of Washington's songs in this production, and her majestic delivery is the heart of the evening.

With the possible exceptions of Washington's signature crossover hit, "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," and "This Bitter Earth," Butler makes no attempt to impersonate Washington's singing. It's a wise choice, not only because any imitation would surely pale, but also because it gives the actress a chance to bring her individual style to the music, just as Washington brought hers.

Butler's singing is huskier and jazzier (she uses more scat talk, for example), but like Washington, her voice also has a wide range of shadings. It's a voice than can cajole, groan, plead, sweet talk or roar. Regrettably, the roaring is accentuated by amplification that - in contrast to Washington's crisp diction - often obscures the lyrics (including the racy ones in "Long John Blues").

Butler covers a wide range, showing us how the diva could switch from stubborn to needy, nasty, generous or selfish in the bat of an eyelash. Her opening line is: "Well, I sure as hell ain't Dinah Shore," and even when she dons a blond wig a la Doris Day ("If Miss Doris can borrow my music, the least I can do is borrow the top of her head"), she's one tough cookie.

Goldstick's script situates most of the action in the Sahara Hotel in 1959, when Washington became the first African-American singer to perform on the Las Vegas Strip. (The intimate configuration of tables and chairs for Center Stage's production also worked well in the theater's 1993 staging of a similar show about Billie Holiday, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.")

Washington soon discovers she's expected to use the kitchen entrance and stay in trailers in the parking lot. Swathed in a full-length white fur coat over a black slip, the Queen of the Blues plants herself in the hotel lobby in protest.

From there the action skips around in time, interspersing Washington's dealings with various hotel personnel, her manager (Chris Hutchinson) and assistant (Carla J. Hargrove) with flashbacks to her arguments over the years with her church-going mother (Hargrove), her relationships (she had at least a half dozen husbands, but the men in her life are represented here by two characters, both played by David A. White) and her negotiations with a Mercury Records executive (Jeff Still).

The most dramatic situation is the sappy, calculated ending, in which Washington befriends a member of the hotel's kitchen staff, appealingly played by the versatile Hargrove, who's also a strong singer. But too many of the supporting characters - particularly Washington's mother - are stick figures, depleting any genuine sense of conflict.

Still, the show is an undeniable crowd-pleaser; advance sales already have prompted a one-week extension. A slick five-piece on-stage band, directed by pianist William Knowles, provides fluid accompaniment throughout the show, under the overall direction of David Petrarca.

"When you come see my show, you have a good time," Butler says in a call-and-response exchange with the audience at the start of the second act. "It's my show, don't you forget it."

"Dinah Was" celebrates Washington's life and music, but this production is Butler's show and she has no trouble holding her own.

`Dinah Was'

Where Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays. Through May 20

Tickets $24-$35

Call 410-332-0033

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