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What a Difference a Play Makes

Being in the hit TV series 'ER' is nice, but Yvette Freeman really struck gold, personally and professionally, with a musical about Dinah Washington.

June 16, 1996|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Yvette Freeman describes herself as a mighty "happy camper" these days.

And for good reason.

Freeman appears in the No. 1 TV series, "ER," as no-nonsense nurse Haleh Adams. She adores her two cats, Sam and Barkley (as in Charles Barkley). And she's blissfully happy in her four-month marriage to musical director Lanny Hartley.

To top it off, Freeman is playing her dream role of legendary blues singer Dinah Washington in Oliver Goldstick's musical play "Dinah Was," which has its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood.

Husband Hartley also happens to be the play's musical director. But, Freeman says, she keeps their working relationship strictly business. "It works real well," she says. "I respect him and he respects me. Dinah brought us together."

Freeman, 45, has always been passionate about the "Queen of Blues," who died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 39 in 1963.

"My father was a jazz musician and there was always jazz in the house," says the effervescent actress, during a break in rehearsals at the A Noise Within theater in Glendale.

"I heard Dinah from forever," adds Freeman, who bares a physical and vocal resemblance to the first female African American artist to cross over from rhythm and blues to the all-white pop charts with 1959's "What a Difference a Day Makes."

"Dinah Was," which features 13 of Washington's songs, is set in 1959 just as the Grammy Award winner is about to make her debut as a headliner at the Sahara in Las Vegas. But racism rears its ugly head when Washington learns the management plans to accommodate her in a trailer next to the garbage in the hotel's parking lot.

The play, Freeman says, should strike a chord with audiences. "We are all trying to be somebody," Freeman explains. "We have all that in our lives when we are trying to become something that is maybe not us. Dinah wanted to make money like Nat 'King' Cole. She was a blues singer, but she could sing it all. She would lay down tracks and Doris Day would [cover the song] or Patti Page. All of those women were wonderful, but Dinah wanted to get a piece of that."

Washington is forced to make a choice in "Dinah Was"--"to cross over to lose yourself or to be yourself and just live your life instead of being somebody everybody else wants you to be," Freeman says. "She has got headline billing. She thinks this is it. Since her name is up there, she thinks she can stay in the hotel because this means so much more for her. So it's the story of her sitting protesting in the parking lot. And then you see her life story [unfold]."

Married nine times, Washington battled a weight problem throughout her career--"like me," Freeman acknowledges. "She kept losing her weight with pills. We didn't know that would kill you if you drank too much with it or took sleeping pills at night to put yourself down. It just killed her when she was at the top, at her happiest. It was Christmastime. Everything was working well. She had her man. She had the kids. She had everything. The money was going well and she was sitting in front of the TV and she dies. Isn't that awful? To finally make it work. . . . "

For 10 years, Freeman dreamed about bringing Washington's life story to the stage. She did extensive research, talked to people who worked with her, as well as two of her former husbands. Her dream became a reality when she met Goldstick at an audition. They discovered their mutual admiration for Washington, who began her career with Lionel Hampton's band in 1943.

"He knew all of her music," she says of Goldstick, "and said, 'I would like to write it for you.' We worked it over and he just did it. It is like a blessing."

The play debuted last year at Massachusetts' Williamstown Theatre Festival. Revisions weremade for the West Coast premiere and Bob Devin Jones came on board as the new director. "We worked out a lot of the kinks," Freeman says. "I am singing a lot in the play. It's almost like a nightclub act with a story, so you are going to get a lot of music."

Freeman acknowledges she is "happy and scared" about playing her idol. "It is the best feeling to have a piece that you wanted to do. We are all giving up our summers to be in this piece."

Fans of "ER," she says, will be surprised to see her out of her drab nurses' garb and singing the blues decked out in mink. "Haleh has made [the play] happen for me," Freeman says. " 'ER' has helped. I have been on Broadway and all, but somehow being on 'ER' makes me more--I don't know--somebody they will listen to."

Freeman, who has a bachelor's degree in theater arts from the University of Delaware, got her big break on Broadway back in 1979 in "Ain't Misbehavin.' "

"Name any musical, I have done it," Freeman says, smiling. "Name any regional theater, I have been there. I have been all over the world."

In 1990, after spending two years in the Boston company of "Nunsense," Freeman decided to quit touring in musicals, packed her bags and came out to Los Angeles, looking for the more settled life she appears to have found.

"I was getting older and thought about having a husband--things like that," Freeman says. "You can't do that traveling."


"DINAH WAS," Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends July 28. Price: $20 through July 4; $24-$26 beginning July 5. Phone: (213) 660-TKTS.

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