If you are a fan of Leslie Uggams, or long to hear the music of Lena Horne, or would like to see the birth of a new star (Nikki Crawford), hurry over to the Pasadena Playhouse to see Stormy Weather, conceived and written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen, directed by Michael Bush, and choreographed by the talented Randy Skinner. The evening celebrates the music of the legendary Lena Horne by telling her life story through flashbacks as she prepares, after many years absence from singing, for her one-woman show The Lady and her Music, which ran on Broadway and won a Tony Award.
Lena Horne’s story is a turbulent tale of talent, prejudice, courage, disappointment, and triumph. She, and Leslie Uggams for that matter, set the stage for African-American singers and performers who came after. Ms. Horne had to suffer humiliations like having her bedclothes thrown out and burned once she had slept in them in a Vegas hotel, and having to relieve herself in a cup rather than use the hotel’s restroom. She suffered further disgrace in the eyes of many when she married a white man, and when she was denied the right to play Julie in the movie of Showboat (the role was given to Ava Gardner).
Leslie Uggams plays the mature Horne and is in fine fettle. Her voice is as mellow and evocative as ever, and as always she displays her considerable acting chops. She has strong support from Dee Hoty as the flamboyantly fabulous Kay Thompson, Horne’s friend and vocal coach when she first started. Lena’s long-suffering white husband is Robert Torti. Her great friend and fellow performer Billy Strayhorn is immaculately played and sung by Kevyn Morrow. Lena also often appeared with the Nicholas Brothers, here brilliantly danced by Phillip Attimore and Wilkie Ferguson (in the show they are here called the Jones Brothers but there is no mistaking who they are). Randy Skinner has devised some show-stopping numbers for them.
The real discovery of the evening is Nikki Crawford as the young Lena. As such she gets to sing some of the show’s best numbers: “Just One of Those Things,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.” She is a tremendous talent and more than holds her own with Ms. Uggams. She even captures some of Lena Horne’s darker tones.
As enjoyable as the show is, I must say I preferred seeing Lena Horne singing these songs herself on Broadway. Much of the same historical ground is covered, and filling the story out as a biographic theater piece doesn’t work all that well. The show is worth seeing, though, and more importantly it is worth hearing. The performances, music direction (Linda Twine), choreography, and staging are all excellent. Stormy Weather may be seen at the Pasadena Playhouse until March 1.