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Talented star captures Washington's sound and fury in 'Dinah Was'

Laiona Michelle (with J. Bernard Calloway) as legendary blues singer Dinah Washington . (MEGHAN MOORE)

LOWELL -- Surely the audience that witnessed Dinah Washington breaking Las Vegas's color barrier at the Sahara in 1959 could not have been any more floored than the aficionados who manage to catch Laiona Michelle's uncanny re - creation of the event in "Dinah Was" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

Anyone not old enough, or lucky enough, to have witnessed the "Queen of the Blues" in her prime will emerge eager to check her out on YouTube and iTunes. Born Ruth Lee Jones of Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1924, Washington enjoyed a meteoric career before overdosing on barbiturates in 1963. She was an acolyte of Billie Hol iday but had her own distinctive style, as well as her own demons. Yet apparently you couldn't call her "inimitable," because Michelle brilliantly captures her essence: head thrown back, whole body engaged and responsive, with that tightly focused hint of vibrato, guaranteed to elicit chills.

In the play -- television writer Oliver Goldstick's clever construct of flashbacks debuted off-Broadway in 1998 -- we meet Washington as she embarks in a semi-sloshed sit-down strike of sorts in the Sahara lobby, economically suggested by set designer Bill Clarke with one sole Sputnik-style chandelier and a sea of electric-blue curtains. In a scene almost identical to a situation captured in the 1999 TV movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" starring Halle Berry, hotel management -- John Kooi and W.T. Martin play an assortment of not always easily identifiable functionaries -- is trying to steer the internationally renowned singer to "a special area designated for entertainers." This translates to a trailer out back, turf to be shared with the novelty act "Freddie Kane and His Fabulous Kanines." Washington, who has had plenty of experience with discrimination on the road, refuses to go gentle.

As her own lushly orchestrated vocals play over the hotel's sound system, we get glimpses of the elements that went into making this feisty scrapper, who even in flirtatious mode comes across as combative. Influences include a rigid Baptist mother who's as covertly competitive as she is hypercritical (Nadiyah S. Dorsey brings a superbly specific physicality to this and two other roles), a series of husbands who never stuck around long (Washington collected seven; J. Bernard Calloway portrays two, with an easy sensuality), and two young sons (unseen) whom she yearns to shower love on, just as soon as she gets the time. The Washington we see is generous to a fault, as well as needy, driven, and torn.

She's also outspoken and funny. Goldstick's script is studded with laugh-out-loud one-liners. Washington warns her assistant -- Dorsey again -- not to trust a new suitor: "After you through kissing the man, you gotta count your teeth." The dialogue is more than mere filler bridging the songs: 15 in all, from the relatively obscure to chart-toppers. It builds a rounded portrait of a woman who, while chastised by critics for homogenizing her sound to achieve crossover appeal, broke many a barrier along with her own heart.

Michelle is a flat-out phenomenon in the role. If you missed catching Washington on her first terrestrial tour, it's not too late to start listening.