Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Orson’s Shadow" and "Dinah Was"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi


by Austin Pendleton
Conceived by Judith Aubernojois
directed by Adam Zahler

Kenneth … Jason Marr
Sean … Adam Soule
Orson … Steven Barkheimer
Larry … Tuck Milligan
Joan … Helen McElwain
Vivien … Debra Wise


by Oliver Goldstick
directed by Charles Towers
musical direction by e’Marcus Harper

Maye … Nadiyah S. Dorsey
Hamilton Frick … John Kooi
Dinah Washington … Laiona Michelle
Joe Spinelli … W. T. Martin
Mama Jones … Nadiyah S. Dorsey
Rollie … John Kooi
Boss … J. Bernard Calloway
Sam Greenblatt … W. T. Martin
Chase Adams … J. Bernard Calloway
Violet … Nadiyah S. Dorsey
Others … Julia Cook; John Kneeland; Michael Morrison


Saxophone … Lawrence Cook
Guitar … Greg Diamond
Piano … e’Marcus Harper
Bass … Corcoran Holt
Drums … Romero Wyatt

Should you attend Leslie Epstein’s KING OF THE JEWS (Boston Playwright’s Theatre) --- and I hope you have or will, for it is soon drawing to a close --- you will get an invaluable lesson on how to adapt a rambling novel into a riveting play; should you attend Austin Pendleton’s ORSON’S SHADOW (New Repertory Theatre) together with Oliver Goldstick’s DINAH WAS (Merrimack Repertory Theatre), you will learn the triumphs and pitfalls of bringing legendary people to life, onstage. Mr. Pendleton takes one page from the careers of Orson Welles and Sir Lawrence Olivier, brought together by critic Kenneth Tynan for a production of Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS with Mr. Welles directing Lord Olivier who, at the time, was courting actress Joan Plowright while planning to divorce the emotionally fragile Vivien Leigh (Mr. Tynan’s matchmaking is two-fold: not only does he want to provide Mr. Welles with funds for his film project CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, he wants to co-found the National Theatre of Great Britain with Lord Olivier). The Messrs. Welles and Olivier can barely tolerate each other; the Messrs. Welles and Tynan, while friends, vastly differ on Ms. Leigh; Ms. Leigh unexpectedly arrives en route to New York as well as another nervous breakdown; Ms. Plowright alternates between earth mother and all-around Good Sport. Mr. Goldstick’s DINAH WAS spins the life story of blues-pop singer Dinah Washington from rise to fall to (posthumous) rise, centering around Ms. Washington performing at Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel in 1959 but being forced to stay in a trailer due to Jim Crow policies. Of the two, DINAH WAS is the more satisfying encounter: ORSON’S SHADOW depends heavily on gossip, ego-clashes and cattiness with few nods to the Messrs. Welles and Olivier’s artistry; by the final round, the two raging bulls are still standing, neither of them bloodied nor bowed (Mr. Tynan narrates, clever-cleverly pointing out the nature of a dusting scene before delivering one, himself.) DINAH WAS is breezily presentational with the woman’s songs occasionally being used as biographical commentary (a common device in bio-musicals); Ms. Washington battles anyone and everyone for artistic survival and respect, alienating husbands, friends and family along the way. In short, ORSON’S SHADOW runs on who its famous people are; thus, it relies heavily on its impersonations --- DINAH WAS runs on what its leading lady does; the actress portraying Ms. Washington need not even look or sound like her as long as the anger and talent comes through. Character based on reflection (ORSON) versus character based on action (DINAH).

Both evenings are worth seeing for its acting, alone. No one in ORSON’S SHADOW convinced me that they were the living, breathing originals, but they were fascinating to watch as familiar theatre types --- the flamboyant Director, the temperamental Star, and so on --- and director Adam Zahler keeps everything rat-a-tat-tat lest you be tempted to look away for a second. Orson is Steven Barkhimer’s most impressive work, thus far; his commanding bluster may remain the same but I’ve yet to tire of it, and he is marvelously contrasted by Debra Wise who is fast becoming one of my favorite stage-chameleons: any woman who can follow up a grotesque Knecht Ruprecht in the recent Christmas Revels with a sweetly cunning, ultra-feminine Vivien Leigh is definitely worth watching --- and Ms. Wise gives a nostalgic lesson of her own: how to be genteel-sexy while being coiffed and garbed and high-heeled to the nth degree.

What a small world, the Boston theatre scene is! I last saw Laiona Michelle, twice, at New Repertory where she was Cordelia to Mr. Pendleton’s King Lear, followed by STONEWALL JACKSON’S HOUSE directed by Mr. Zahler. Now Ms. Mitchell strides onto the Merrimack Stage, a white fur coat as her armor, and immediately breaks down all barriers between role and audience with her fierce, funny and superbly sung Dinah. Her figure does not cry out for Ms. Washington’s addiction to diet pills, and only occasionally does her singing match Ms. Washington’s nasal, clipped gospel-shouts but, then, Ms. Washington might envy the rich, soaring pipes with which Ms. Mitchell has been blessed. Ms. Mitchell has done her homework: her Dinah’s anger flows from segregated times and not once does she plead for audience sympathy and her closing number “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”, delivered in the afterlife, is all the more moving when delivered as is, free of racial baggage. Ms. Mitchell is well-supported by J. Bernard Calloway as two of Ms. Washington’s husbands, John Kooi and W. T. Martin as variations of the Man and, especially, Nadiyah S. Dorsey who shines as Ms. Washington’s mother, beleaguered assistant and unexpected protégé.

Janie E. Howland and Bill Clarke have designed some striking settings: for ORSON’S SHADOW, Ms. Howland gives us a stripped down stage with chairs, fire escape and exposed brick wall which any theatre person will tell you is magic, enough; Mr. Clarke evokes the world of 1950s lounge and TV specials with his sky-blue curtains and starburst chandelier.

See both productions, if you can, and learn --- and KING OF THE JEWS, as well.

"Orson’s Shadow" (23 February-18 March)
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, WATERTOWN, MA
1 (617) 923-8487

"Dinah Was" (15 February-11 March)
50 E. Merrimack Street, LOWELL, MA
1 (978) 454-3926