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A Dynamite 'Dinah Was'
E. Faye Butler Brings That Other Washington to Life

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 7, 2000; Page C01

In "Dinah Was," the entertaining musical biography now playing at Arena Stage, playwright Oliver Goldstick portrays blues and jazz singer Dinah Washington as a bomb going off in the lobby of Las Vegas's Sahara Hotel, and actress E. Faye Butler gives an appropriately explosive performance in the role. She does exactly what the show demands of her--she acts like a star, wonderfully.

Butler's Washington is larger than life the moment she glides through the revolving doors (cleverly emblematic of her mercurial, topsy-turvy life) in set designer Michael Yeargan's attractive cobalt-blue rendering of the Sahara lobby. Washington, known as "The Queen of the Blues," is headlining at the hotel, but the white managers won't give the black woman a room. (The year is 1959.) They want her to stay in a trailer on the parking lot. So Washington--fierce and formidable, the way Butler does it--cusses out the management, rips off her white fur coat and sits in her slip in the lobby, threatening not to perform, while her life flashes by.

The playwright wastes no time working Washington's signature tunes into the texture of the tale. The singer tongue-lashes the racist Sahara staffers who politely tell her she's dirt and launches into "Bad Luck," an up-tempo blues song (played by a top-notch jazz quintet led by musical director William Knowles) that lets us know she's been through these kinds of hassles plenty of times.

Goldstick's tart dialogue can be a real weapon in Butler's mouth; her Washington seems extremely bright and extremely undisciplined with her emotions, unable to lay off the biting remarks whenever she's in a foul mood. But Washington's music is the heart of the show, and Butler brings it to life with flair; the fun numbers swing and the blues ballads hurt.

Butler, whose lush, powerful voice is huskier than Washington's, crawls up to the middle of the pitch a little slowly now and then, but that's her only flaw. Basically, she's a knockout. Butler closes the first act with a rendition of "I Wanna Be Loved" that's almost desperately sad. Like Washington, Butler lays her voice out with everything she's got, and it's thrilling.

Under David Petrarca's direction, some of the early scenes are almost breathtaking in their fluidity. As the scene shifts to a club date, the platform the musicians occupy slides toward the front of the stage as Washington publicly humiliates a sax player she thinks is upstaging her. The sax player fights back, and the next thing you know, sparks are flying. The scene snakes into another number, and we watch the figures progress from the stage to bed.

Butler and Darryl Alan Reed play this with a lot of sex appeal and understated cool as they make out (pretty graphically) and sing "Baby, You Got What It Takes." The sax player, who seems to be Goldstick's conflation of the seven husbands and other lovers who Washington ran through during her short life, eagerly leads her onto the dance floor but finds himself holding her silk wrap--her subtle but effective way of asserting control.

Washington's quest for control and her penchant for self-destruction turns out to be a major theme. The economical script has four actors playing nine characters in orbit around her. It runs us back through the singer's lousy relationships: with her mother, a gospel singer who disapproves of the blues (Carla J. Hargrove is a lean, austere figure in the role); with the sons she never sees; with colleagues and confidants she bulldozes for reasons good and bad.

Petrarca's gorgeous production features snippets of delicious choreography by George W. Faison, and benefits from smart supporting performances by Hargrove, Reed, Harry Althaus and Steve Pickering. Paul Tazewell has designed sharp, telling costumes, as always, and the stage is bathed in warm, Vegas-like light by Trui Malten, working from Stephen Strawbridge's original design.

There isn't much grit in this pretty picture; despite the abundance of tantrums and melancholy, both script and show soft-pedal Washington's seamy side--the prescription drug problems, the weight problems, the man problems.

The title "Dinah Was," which is uttered pretentiously as Washington makes up her mind about how to handle the Sahara racists (the moment toward which the whole show oddly builds), implies that there was a "before" Dinah and an "after" Dinah--the volatile, trouble-seeking pistol that Dinah was, and the better, more grounded person that Dinah became.

It doesn't wash; Washington blew hot and cold all her life, as Goldstick elsewhere takes pains to show. The Washington hit "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" filters through this musical like a mantra--an emblem, like that revolving door, of temperamental change.

Washington had a few more hard years ahead before overdosing on pills and alcohol at the age of 39. There is irony in having Washington sing her final song ("I Don't Hurt Anymore") from the great beyond in an immaculate white gown, but Goldstick and Petrarca minimize it. Emotionally, it's a feel-good ending that doesn't ring true.

Okay, the dramaturgy is peculiar and the biography feels a little fudged; so what? The production is so slick, the dialogue often so delectable and the star performance so consistently powerful that you likely won't mind. "Y'all wanna hear some music?" Butler bellows to the balcony after ripping through the very naughty "Long John Blues" to open the second act.

"Yeah!" roared Friday's opening-night crowd, and I don't know that I've ever heard such a loud audience response in the Kreeger. With Butler's brassy Dinah Washington at the mike? You bet we want to hear some music.

Dinah Was, by Oliver Goldstick. Directed by David Petrarca. Musical supervision, orchestration and arrangements, Jason Robert Brown; sound, Rob Milburn. Through March 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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