Overlook, if you can, the fact that every now and then Dinah Was feels a tad too much like a sweeps-month TV movie—you know, one of those glossy Motown melodramas shot through with sentimental standards, starring a past-her-prime Diana Ross as an R&B diva with a daytime-drama past and an out-of-wedlock daughter who just happens to have become a huge pop star looking and sounding uncannily like Brandy.
Overlook that slightly camp quality, if you will, because Oliver Goldstick’s affectionate musical biography is actually a pretty slick look at the incomparable blues goddess Dinah Washington, and because E. Faye Butler, the oh-so-sexy star of Arena Stage’s oh-so-sexy production, could very well be some sort of goddess herself. And because you know perfectly well that when you’re sitting on your sofa in your pajamas eating Ben & Jerry’s out of the carton, you adore sweeps-month TV movies and past-her-prime Diana Ross, if not Brandy.
Approach Dinah in that jammies-and-junk-food frame of mind, and you’ll come away from the Kreeger feeling more than fine, even if you’ve dropped full price; it is, if nothing else, an evening of tremendously enjoyable songs sung tremendously well. Think any harder about it than that and you’ll find yourself asking irritable questions about suspect dramaturgy and minor casting mistakes and other such pointless fine points. What Dinah is, is guilty theatrical pleasure; what Dinah ain’t, is any kind of profound. If there’s an injustice there, it’s not that we deserve better, necessarily; it’s that Washington, with her big heart and her enormous talent and her many demons, probably does.
Goldstick, one of those wise writers who keeps one foot in the theater and the other in sitcoms—where the actual money is—structures this agreeable diversion much like a two-hour TV movie, indeed. The setup is a confrontation in the lobby of the Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, circa 1959, when Washington, booked to play the big room (and break a color barrier in the process), finds that the management expects her to park her bags and her black self in a “luxury” trailer behind the hotel, where the garbage and the performing dogs are kept. A standoff ensues, with first decorum and later articles of dress being cast aside, and as the foul-mouthed, fun-loving diva settles down mid-lobby to wait the situation out, a series of flashbacks explains how little Ruth Lee Jones came to be the Queen of the Blues—and a woman, mind you, who’s dealt with this bullshit before.
So formulaic is the structure that the scene transitions would positively cry out for those swimmy, out-of-focus small-screen dissolves if Dinah were, in fact, a TV movie; thank goodness, David Petrarca directs the Arena production with restrained, seamless style, punctuating shifts in time and place with no more than the slap-slap-slap of a revolving door, the sound of a saxophone, the subtle shift of lighting that’s just about all a good theater director needs.
Not that lighting is all Petrarca has to play with. There’s Michael Yeargan’s spare cobalt set, with its slide-away bandstand and its fold-away nightclub walls and that ever-swinging revolving door, so emblematic of the people—seven husbands among them—who come and go through Washington’s eternally unsettled life. There’s a satin sheet that whispers across the stage out of nowhere to turn a slow dance with a sax-playing soldier into something even sexier, not to mention a hot pin spot and a sharp drum shot to punctuate that something’s inevitable conclusion. There’s an accomplished quintet, led by William Knowles at the piano, to further smooth transitions with musical segues and to back Butler in the Washington standards that help chronicle the singer’s rise from blues-club favorite to pop-chart superstar and her descent down a drug- and drink-greased slide.
Most prominent among these songs is “What a Diff’rence a Day Made,” which Goldstick seems to see as a leitmotif for such a turbulent story, but there’s more emotional resonance in numbers like “This Bitter Earth” and “Bad Luck.” Rawer tunes like “Slick Chick (On the Mellow Side)” and “Baby, You Got What It Takes” help round out the picture of a woman whose tongue was a sharp weapon and whose poisonous temper was an instrument not always entirely under her control.
Butler delivers them all with a voice that’s burnished and glamorous one moment, raspy and raunchy the next, big and flexible and as impressive as her plush figure. She bends long phrases confidently around Jason Robert Brown’s sensual arrangements, reads the music’s emotions with unerring instinct, and punches the money notes home with a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of sound. Complain about her very occasional inaccuracies of pitch if you will, but bear in mind that in this kind of music it could well be a deliberate choice, and that you’re probably just jealous anyway—trying to make anything like the sheer noise this woman is making every night, six nights a week, would strip your voice bare and leave you bleeding from the larynx. And you just know it’s hot work, singing your heart out in a white fur coat and a hot white light, but Butler never seems to break a sweat.
Butler has as much fun with Goldstick’s snappy dialogue as she does with Washington’s songs, sinking her teeth into the one-liners and snappy retorts he gives her to hurl at boyfriends and bigots and the Bible-beating mama who envies her success. The actress has the sass down pat, but what makes the performance really first-rate is that she finds the fear and insecurity that’s all tangled up with the attitude and the anger.
But Butler is not the sum of Dinah’s riches; Harry Althaus and Steve Pickering rotate cleanly and amusingly through supporting roles as hotel functionaries and Washington’s hangers-on, and Darryl Alan Reed makes a powerful impression as one of the lovers who inevitably leaves her, driven away by her uncontrollable emotional terrorism. (He’s broadly funny, too, as one of her piano-playing no-account ex-husbands.)
And Carla J. Hargrove is a particular bright spot as Washington’s assistant, Maye, and as a Sahara kitchen staffer who—in one of those moments when Washington’s impulsive generosity subdues her darker side—finds herself singing the socks off a song called “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)” for a packed house. She hasn’t quite got the age or authority to play Washington’s mother, though; the script is written to allow one actress to triple in the roles, but is there a rule that says Arena had to cast it that way? Or was that just a money decision?
It matters not, really. Good as the supporting cast mostly is, its contributions are gilt on the lily. Butler’s star turn makes the evening, and it more than makes up for the shortcomings of a script that tries too hard to redeem a problematic figure. Dinah Washington was a woman who found in the glare of the spotlight a freedom and happiness she could never quite replicate in the dim light of ordinary day; Goldstick, though, resolves the Sahara standoff in a way that seems to hint at a coming to terms that the real Dinah probably never reached.
And he has his heroine deliver her last ballad—”I Don’t Hurt Anymore”—from the Other Side, where she’s presumably found the perfect peace Goldstick wants for her. It’s a sentimental escape; if there’s a welcome ironic undertone to the moment at Arena, it’s because Paul Tazewell’s saucy white beaded gown, with its audacious back slit and its outrageous cutout bodice, is precisely the sort of elegantly raunchy number Dinah Washington would wear to headline a performance with the Heavenly Choir. CP