Dinah Was. The story opens with Dinah Washington, at the height of her fame, arriving at the Sahara 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 that 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, 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. Then the action flashes back to show her life, and 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 — but the script rambles and repeats, and the characters are stereotypical. And while most of the acting is solid, director Jeffrey Nickelson has allowed a couple of performers to hugely overplay their roles. None of this 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 forget you're watching a play and simply lose yourself in the emotion and energy of the moment. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through May 24, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 720-857-8002, 866-388-4TIX, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed May 1.
Sight Unseen. Donald Margulies's play opens with a house in the English countryside — but this is no cozy cottage surrounded by green, sheep-dotted fields. This is a gray, damp world inhabited by Patricia, an American expatriate, and her British husband, Nick, whom she married on the rebound and won't allow to touch her. Both are surly and miserable; archaeologists, they also show a remarkable lack of interest in their work. The action begins with the entry of Jonathan, a Jewish artist who's the flavor du jour in New York — famous, lionized, able to command huge sums of money for his works, even before he's painted them. Jonathan happens to be Patricia's first, last and only love, and having come to London for an art-show opening, he's looking her up. Naturally, Nick doesn't like this; Jonathan's presence inspires him to a most un-English display of nastiness. Between Patricia's barely suppressed anger and her husband's rudeness, you can't figure out why Jonathan doesn't just leave. Worse is in store at a London art gallery, where Jonathan is interviewed by a German writer, Grete, who hits him with a couple of "gotcha" questions. Throughout Sight Unseen, there's a fair amount of talk about art and truth, the meaning of success, the relationship between an artist and his work and a portrait Jonathan painted of Patricia at the very beginning of their relationship that he now sees as pivotal to his development. None of the characters is particularly likable, and though the cast is competent, the performances aren't good enough to save this dour play. Presented by Paragon Theatre through May 31, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-300-2210, www.paragpn.org. Reviewed May 15.
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The Last Five Years. This intimate two-person musical involves the breakup of a marriage. When Jamie and Cathy met in New York, he was an aspiring writer and she an actress. Success came for him fast, while she continued to inhabit the dreary, ego-pummeling world of auditions and summer stock — with predictable results for their relationship. The songs — solos, with one exception — reveal a triumphant Jamie noticing his effect on other women and fighting the desire to utilize it, with a sulky Cathy refusing to attend his publishing party. He resents her neediness and insecurity, she his arrogance and self-involvement. Playwright Jason Robert Brown has hit on an interesting device to make this relatively commonplace story more poignant and more complex: While Jamie relates events as they happened, Cathy reveals them backwards. At the very beginning, she weeps over Jamie's goodbye letter, and minutes later, he erupts onto the scene singing rapturously about the "shiksa goddess" he's just met. Chris Crouch and Shannan Steele are both terrific performers, brimming with energy, poised and charismatic, possessed of lovely, expressive voices. Crouch makes Jamie real and funny and quirky, and Steele is often touching as Cathy — though I wish both would avoid that awful, dissolving-into-self-pitying-tears style that's come to dominate singing in musicals these days. Still, this is an emotionally exuberant production, staged in a smooth, comfortable style, and enjoyable even though it's far from thought-provoking. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 29 at the Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 14.