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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Dinah Still Is

For Yvette Freeman, the Legendary Singer Is a Part of Her Musical and Dramatic Careers Jazz

October 25, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fans of the hit television drama "E.R." know Yvette Freeman as feisty, no-nonsense nurse Haleh Adams. But the multitalented star has another persona as well--one in which she portrays the great jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington. Playing the lead in the musical "Dinah Was," Freeman was so convincing that she won a 1998 Obie for the role.

Freeman will reprise the role, musically speaking, at Spaghettini in Seal Beach on Saturday night with the trio of her husband, pianist Lanny Hartley.

"Dinah's part of my life," Freeman said. "I'll always be doing her in my material. Working with her story allowed her, so to speak, to teach me the love of music, the love of jazz. And she's taught me about the poetry of music, as well.

"I type up all my lyrics on my computer, away from the music, to see the songs as acting pieces, and as stories. Dinah taught me that, because that's what she did with her music. You could understand every word, the whole story, the whole song."

She views her Spaghettini appearance as a great opportunity to kick back and relax from the rigors of the "E.R." production process.

"My husband usually works there every month or so with his group," Freeman said, "and occasionally I just go and sit in. It's a comfortable place, everybody talks, relaxes, and there's good food. So this gig will just be an extension of that feeling."

In addition to the Washington songs, she will be doing other material, including standards and a number of new selections from a rhythm & blues album that is still being recorded. Despite her visibility as an actress, Freeman has always been a versatile musical artist, as well.

"I do jazz, I do R&B and I do show tunes," she said, "so I don't think I should be put in any single category, even though, unfortunately, that's what the business likes to do."

She traces most of her musical background to her father, jazz pianist Charles Freeman. She starred on Broadway in "Ain't Misbehavin' " and was in the touring companies of "The Wiz," "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" and "Voices, Inc.," among other shows. And she has found that her acting and singing interact in a particularly felicitous manner.

"When I start to work on a song," Freeman said, "I write out the lyrics and look at the story. Some singers have voices that are like instruments. My voice is not like that. It's an OK voice, but it's how I can connect with the audience through the story that's important."

With acting, a kind of reverse process takes place.

"I try to find the rhythms there, too," Freeman adds. "My husband reads for me sometimes when I'm doing an audition, and once, when I was doing something that he felt wasn't working, he said, 'That doesn't sound right, musically. It doesn't flow.' So you can hear the music even in the written word of a sitcom or a drama--the flow, the rhythm, the arc of what's happening. And when it's working right, that's what really has to be there."

Freeman--whose first recording, released in 1999, was "A Tribute To Dinah Washington"--would love to do "Dinah Was" again in the Los Angeles area, preferably at a large venue. But her schedule is so busy that a reprise performance, if it ever happens, is probably well into the future.

"I'm working hard," she said, "but that's what being blessed as an actor is all about--get it while you can."

She said she'll probably appear in about 17 of the 22 "E.R." episodes this season.

She also appeared in "Judging Amy," she said, and hopes to return to that show and to do more roles. "I did a 'Boston Public' last week, I'm finishing up my CD and I'm thinking about doing some cruises. Doing 'Dinah' again would be a dream. What I'd really like would be to do it as a TV movie. But from what they tell me, I'm not a big enough star to make that happen. You have do be like a Halle Berry to do that sort of picture-- like the Dorothy Dandridge movie she did."

Maybe some enterprising producer will realize that pairing Freeman's multifaceted talents with the incomparable songs and the compelling life of Dinah Washington would, in fact, make a very successful picture.

In the meantime, Freeman will continue full speed ahead with her career, embracing the connections between music and acting.

"It's who I am, it's who I want to be," she said. "When my musical ears need help, the words lead me to the right note. When my acting is out of sync, I look for the musical flow. I'm an actor-singer. That's where I come from."

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