We walked to the front door of Shadow Theatre Company's brand-new home in Aurora on a strip of red carpet. Inside the spacious lobby, dozens of people were chatting, smiling, sipping wine. In Denver, people aren't much given to dressing up for a night of theater, but the crowd here was the best-dressed I'd seen in years — the women in an assortment of stunning colors and beautiful lines, the men wearing elegant suits. The space was dressed up, too: Along one wall was a series of sculptures by Ed Dwight, including Miles Davis hunched over his horn, Ray Charles at the piano, head thrown back, and a pair of disembodied hands poised over a keyboard that looked so full of life you expected a crash of ear-filling sound at any moment. And wandering through the crowd was Shadow founder and artistic director Jeffrey Nickelson, beaming and damp-eyed.
Because this was far more than another opening night: This was a milestone and a celebration. For years, Shadow's offerings — musicals, dramas and historical pieces, all selected by Nickelson with the idea of celebrating the black experience and erasing boundaries — were held at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, where we'd sit on folding chairs in a large, bare room with a tiny stage. There were no dressing rooms; actors had to prepare on the fire escape. But scene designer Michael R. Duran had a way of making us forget the space's limitations, and so did the performers.
Still, there were times when Nickelson, who started Shadow in 1997 on a $500 investment from news anchor Reynelda Muse, wondered if he'd be able to keep going, even as the good reviews and awards accumulated. But then Shadow caught the attention of real-estate developer Doug Adams, who'd been working with Aurora officials to create a thriving arts district on East Colfax Avenue. He had a building two blocks from the Aurora Fox Theatre that would be perfect for Shadow, and Aurora offered Nickelson a $250,000 loan, to be forgiven if he remains on site for five years.
As the lights flickered, we all moved into the 191-seat theater, commenting on its dimension and sophistication, laughing about the comfortable seats. There were thanks and introductions. And then Dinah Was began.
The story opens with Dinah Washington, at the height of her fame, arriving at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas for a show. Though the manager expects her to fill the house, he refuses to give her a room at the hotel, insisting she stay in the trailer he's prepared for her in the back. Furious, Dinah strips off her fur coat to reveal that she's wearing only a slip underneath it, plunks herself down on her suitcases in the middle of the lobby, fishes out a hip flask and proceeds to get drunk, ignoring all arguments, threats and entreaties. From there the action flashes backward to Dinah's mean-spirited, ostentatiously Christian mother; the musician lover who sleeps with his boots on so he can make a quick getaway; an ex-husband, representative of half a dozen; the devoted secretary Dinah eventually drives away; the long-suffering manager. We watch the star become increasingly drug- and booze-addled, sympathizing with her frustration at being told to stick with rhythm and blues and to tone down her act for television, recoiling from her self-pity and self-destructiveness. There are moving scenes and some wonderful lines — "I can sound whiter than Pat Boone's behind," Dinah says at one point; at another, she does a hilarious imitation of a dimpling Doris Day singing "Que Sera, Sera."
Overall, the script is pretty much boilerplate, rambling and repeating. And while most of the acting is solid, Nickelson has allowed a couple of performers to hugely overplay their roles.
None of that matters, though, because jazz singer René Marie, who plays Dinah, is a phenomenon, a woman with a strong, humorous presence and a glorious voice. When she sings, you lose track of time and context and forget you're watching a play; you simply immerse yourself in the emotion and energy of the moment. Marie breaks your heart on "This Bitter Earth" and takes you to a deep, yearning place with "I Wanna Be Loved," singing how "I wanna be thrilled to desperation ...." One wickedly sexy song called "Long John Blues" is ostensibly about going to the dentist, but it's full of double entendres. And late in the play, when Dinah coaxes a shy kitchen helper played by ShaShauna Staton to sing along with her on "Rockin' Good Way," Staton reveals an amazingly melodious sound of her own.
But it's thanks to Marie that Dinah Was is a rockin' good time, and in a space that pulses with potential.
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