Stormy Weather Theater Review - Leslie Uggams and Nikki Crawford Shine as Lena Horne in Pasadena Playhouse Production

Lena Horne: The Real Deal

 

Lena Horne is truly one of our American Treasures.   Singer, actress, activist, Horne was a pioneer in every sense of the word. She became the first and highest paid African American actress to sign a long term studio contract (in her case, with MGM) during World War Two. And although she has won countless awards during her fifty year career as a performer, her ultimate achievement would no doubt be her role as a warrior for civil rights, tirelessly combating a vile demon called racism that plagued mid-twentieth century America.   She has fought many battles and has the scars to prove it, especially the emotional ones. She has experienced loss of the worse kind when her son died at a young age.   But nonetheless, Horne persevered while maintaining her strength, dignity, and class. And yet, she still has a little bit of moxie, especially when she shares well-known words of wisdom, such as “It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it,” and “Always be smarter than the people who hire you.”

 

Leslie Uggams sings up a storm as Lena Horne

 

 

To capture a woman’s heart and soul on paper was quite a feat for author Sharleen Cooper Cohen. In her play, STORMY WEATHER, Cohen masterfully takes a theatrical snapshot of Horne as a performer and as a human being possessing many flaws. But seeking the right venue and the perfect actresses (not just one, but two) to portray Horne is a monumental task in itself. Fortunately, the Pasadena Playhouse was up to the challenge, as well as the play's two stars. In this beautifully directed and choreographed musical of Lena Horne's life, stage veteran Leslie Uggams and Nikki Crawford provide the perfect doses of theatrical thunder and lightning in STORMY WEATHER.

 

Taking place in the early 1980’s, we see an older Lena Horne (Uggams) emotionally torn and battered through a series of life altering events, including---in 1971---the deaths of three of the most important men in her life: her father, her second husband, and her only son, Teddy. Although she is going to be awarded a special Tony Award, she doesn’t feel like celebrating. As she and her best friend, actress and composer Kay Thompson (hilariously played by Dee Hoty), get drunk and indulge in good-natured insults and banter, both reminisce about the beginning of Horne's career, starting when she was a singer at the famous Cotton Club and whose mentors were Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, to where she took the big leap on the Silver Screen and befriended talented artists such as Billy Strayhorne and Lennie Hayton (whom she would soon marry, causing a major scandal, for interracial marriages were illegal during those turbulent years), and where she became a dynamic force in the Civil Rights Movement.

 

Lena (Uggams) likes what she sees

 

But this memory play, expertly laden with music numbers that transport the viewer into the appropriate times, is more than a trip down memory lane for Horne; it is a time of self-discovery to discover how her strength has turned into bitterness and anger, which she not only inflicts on her close friend, but also her children and especially her supportive second husband, Lennie (portrayed by Robert Torti with a powerful combination of class and sympathy). This play represents her life, which she is desperately trying to put the pieces back together again. And headliner Leslie Uggams incredibly brings all her emotional facets to their primal glory. Her likeness to the legendary performer is stunning, but Uggams harnesses the pain, anger, feisty humor, peaceful acceptance, and charm and funnels them out with both her dramatic presence and especially her musical flair, including the patiently seductive “Honeysuckle Rose” and the elegant signature piece, “Stormy Weather.” We go through the journey with Uggams, and it’s a fulfilling ride.

 

Robert Torti as Lennie Hayton plays for Nikki Crawford's Young Lena

 

But as the older Horne looks back on her life, we witness her younger self grow and blossom into full glory.   Uggams’ physical resemblance to Horne is magical, but Nikki Crawford’s is just downright frightening.  She encapsulates the innocent teen years wonderfully, and then oozes sensuality, spice, and exotic mystery as we see her during the motion picture era of her life.   Her facial expressions, her body language, and her vocals are almost a perfect match, especially as she sings the opening number of the second act, the rhythmic “Push De Button.” STORMY WEATHER is Uggams’ show, but Crawford's theatrical presence is extraordinary.

 

The Company of Stormy Weather singing the highlight "This Little Light of Mine"

 

As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, Kevyn Morrow as Jazz Composer Billy Strayhorn exudes charm and coolness, most notably when singing “Lover, Come Back to Me.” Cleavant Derricks humorously steals his scenes as Lena Horne’s non-committal father. But the true moments of musical magic come when we see Philip Attmore and Wilkie Ferguson as the tap dancing masters, Jivin Jones and Aiken Bones.   Theirs is the purest example of total synchronicity, demonstrating the best tap dancing sequences I have seen in years. The crowning musical event that even surpasses Uggams singing STORMY WEATHER occurs when young Lena attends a church service held by the late Reverend Medgar Evers.   A couple of parishioners begin the opening lines of “This Little Light of Mine,” which spreads like an benevolent, infectious bug to all members on stage.   But it doesn’t stop there.   Soon, this song about hope, strength and the joy of life, brought the entire audience to clap along with the beat, which was only surpassed by the well-deserved applause during curtain call.

 

 

Stormy Weather opened Wednesday, January 21, 2009 and will run through Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pasadena Playhouse

39 South El Molino Avenue

Pasadena , CA 91101


Tuesday through Friday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 4pm and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm and 7pm

For reservations:
call:
(626) 356-7529
online:
http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org/index.htm

Photos by: mellopix and kevinberne.com

 

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