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What a Difference a Diva Makes

Center Stage Does the Queen of the Blues Proud

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: E. Faye Butler is Dinah Washington.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 4/18/2001

Dinah Was

Oliver Goldstick

It's always hard to play a legend. Some have done it with greatness--Judy Davis' recent portrayal of Judy Garland in a TV movie comes to mind--while others have induced cringes (for instance, Jennifer Love Hewitt in a TV-movie turn as Audrey Hepburn). In Oliver Goldstick's Dinah Was at Center Stage, E. Faye Butler takes on both acting and singing like Dinah Washington. Fortunately, Butler's performance is amazingly strong, alternately revealing the hard-living Washington's sense of humor, her anger, her selfishness, and her good heart.

Playwright Goldstick also had a daunting task before him: capturing the tumultuous jazz/R&B singer's spirit and complexity and relaying it to an audience, much of which knows nothing more about Washington than her signature tune, "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes." Goldstick has no trouble bringing Washington's spirit to life, but the play might be difficult to follow for those not familiar with the singer's history. (Fortunately, Center Stage provides a brief bio of Washington in the program.)

Dinah Was begins in the lobby of the Sahara Hotel, where Washington is about to become the first African-American woman to play the Las Vegas strip. But when the outspoken, potty-mouthed, obviously drunk Washington arrives, she is told she can't stay in the hotel. She and her African-American musicians are expected to stay in trailers behind the Sahara, and they are forbidden to gamble in the casino or swim in the pool. That this sad situation is portrayed with so much humor and strength is a testament to the writer's and the cast's abilities. Washington doesn't take any shit and says so, goading the snooty hotel manager (played to nebbishy perfection by Chris Hutchison). He and Butler play off each other wonderfully, and fast-paced timing gives the scene punch.

This confrontations frames a series of flashbacks in which defining moments in Washington's life are portrayed: her break with her mother, the loss of a lover, and the recording of "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," the song that made her the "Queen of the Blues." Goldstick's script offers glimpses into Washington's life rather than a comprehensive history, and the supporting characters are symbols more than people, though some feel more realized than others. Washington's mother is particularly one-dimensional, a snarling Bible thumper who disapproves of everything her child does. Carla J. Hargrove plays the mother with a perpetually scrunched face, which just adds to her shrewishness. Hargrove fares better as Maye, Washington's put-upon assistant, and Violet, a hotel kitchen worker the singer befriends; her portrayal of meek Violet is especially engaging when she shows the quiet, shy girl slowly come out of her shell. David A. White plays Washington's various lovers, who have plenty of energy but end up eclipsed by the star. The strongest supporting turn is by Hutchison, who plays not only the obnoxious hotel manager but also Washington's manager and confidant, Rollie; he has a natural rapport with the dynamic Butler.

Of course, there is plenty of singing. One of the problem with musicals is that the song sequences often feel contrived. Dinah Was slides into this pitfall twice, once in a fairly cheesy duet between Washington and one of her lovers and again in an over-the-top production number. But in general the musical parts fit well, especially the more understated ones. In these scenes, Washington's soulful yet snappy songs beautifully underscore her emotions. Director David Petrarca keeps the pace brisk and Goldstick's dialogue is crisp and clever, insuring that Dinah Was will leave you feeling anything but blue.

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