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'Dinah': Heart and Soul of Washington


Dinah Washington is better known for her sensational voice than she is for being the Rosa Parks of Las Vegas.

But playwright Oliver Goldstick, in his semi-fictionalized play "Dinah Was" at the Coast Playhouse, has focused on Washington's 1959 foray into the good fight. The first black entertainer booked into the main room at the Sahara Hotel, Washington arrived triumphant only to be told there were no rooms available and to be given accommodations in a trailer out back, with the dog acts.

In Goldstick's version, Washington threatens not to go on stage that night. She does much soul-searching and encounters a Mysterious Stranger before finally deciding to take the stage at the Sahara, where she makes a protest speech after singing one song. That speech, supposedly a pivotal moment, meanders into maudlin autobiography before Washington finally, and anticlimactically, tears up a check the hotel gave her as hush money.

But much of what comes before the speech is compelling. Goldstick has written a play that free-floats in time, skipping around through Washington's early days, when she was Ruth Jones, to her later, losing struggle with pills and booze.


Thanks to Bob Devin Jones' fluid staging, which relies on only a few screens and hardly any props, we always know where we are in Washington's ongoing battles--whether with one of her seven husbands (two of them well played by Victor Love) or with various agents and bookers in her climb to the top.

Yvette Freeman sparkles as Washington, bringing huge eyes, deep dimples and star power. She is an imposing presence, and not just because of her ample figure; she's also a dazzling singer who projects large emotions. Her big voice is as much Broadway as blues club, and she sings 13 delicious songs Washington made famous, never leaving the stage for more than a costume change.

Backed by a nimble onstage jazz trio, Freeman plunges heart-long into each song, but her non-musical performance is overdone: For Freeman, every scene is a close-up and every line is underlined. This emphatic quality is also echoed in Goldstick's script, which provides an entertaining but in the end too-broad portrait of the great singer.

Ellia English brings welcome shading to Dinah's religious, disapproving mother, as does Melody Garrett to her devoted but outspoken assistant.

The high points of the evening are all musical. When Dinah discovers a maid in the kitchen of the Sahara with a big voice (also played by English), she sings a smashing duet of "A Rockin' Good Way" with her in the parking lot of the hotel. It doesn't have the ring of truth, but it has heart and soul. The same could be said of the entire play.

* "Dinah Was," Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends July 28. $24-$26. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

(F1) BLAST FROM THE PAST: Yvette Freeman sparkles as singer Washington in "Dinah Was" at the Coast Playhouse. Reviewed by Laurie Winer. F5

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