Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review - Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather
book by Sharleen Cooper Cohen
choreography by Randy Skinner
directed by Michael Bush

Pasadena Playhouse
extended through March 8

Based on a biography of Lena Horne called Lena Horne, Entertainer, Sharleen Cooper Cohen's Stormy Weather is a challenging stage production, which incorporates Horne's original musical hits and a myriad of complex issues: struggles with her up and down career and sufferings from a pained personal life. Michael Best's staging is very good, placing the orchestra behind an array of mirrors that put Horne and her life on display. His use of a staircase leading into the orchestra pit for some of the actors' entrances and exits gives credence to Horne's scattered memories that seem to flash in from every direction.
The only argument I have with the book is that we need some kind of theatrical device to set the scene. Yes, Horne is about to have a nervous breakdown and needs to search her past for answers that may lead to an eventual catharsis, but is she doing it for the sake of a film or memoir, or is she just doing it? Ray Charles Live used an after-life recording session as its premise; I don't believe we have one for Stormy Weather.
That aside, the show is a winner in the super capable hands of its stars Leslie Uggams (the older Horne) and Nikki Crawford (Horne in the early days). Uggams has the role of a lifetime and relishes every second onstage. Even when she is simply looking on at the proceedings, her involvement is scintillating. She has vocally never sounded better and uses her acting chops most effectively to lend urgency and guts to The Lady's pain. Crawford sings equally well and is perhaps even more beautiful than Horne herself. Both deserve many plaudits for their fine work.
The supporting parade of actors are all marvelous: Cleavant Derricks as Horne's father, Robert Torti as music arranger and Horne's second, devoted husband Lennie Hayton, Kevyn Morrow wonderful as the lonely Billy Strayhorn, and Dee Hoty exceptional as Kay Thompson, vocal coach and authoress, who befriends Horne at MGM. Her gal pal Eve Arden type lends terrific support and comic relief. This is the kind of role that wins Best Featured Actress Tonys, and Hoty makes Thompson boisterous and opinionated, yet unstoppably humorous and likeable. The rest of the great ensemble deserve the highest admiration as well, including Yvette Cason as Edna Horne, Bruce Katzman as LB Mayer - and Jordan Barbour and Philip Attmore - unbelievable dancing duo!
Musical highlights include "Love", "Stardust", "Lush Life", "From This Moment On", "How Deep Is the Ocean", "Come Rain or Come Shine", "The Lady Is a Tramp", "Push De Button", and two gems for Miss Uggams: "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Yesterday, When I Was Young". Her undeniable no-holds-barred attitude with the first and sweet, low-key melancholy with the second are knockouts! Of course, the finale and title of the show "Stormy Weather" is
icing on the cake.
Musical artist, champion Civil Rights advocate, or just plain lady, Horne deserves the highest recognition and and no one could do it with more class than Leslie Uggams. This is a show to cherish.
5 out of 5 stars

ps I did not know that Max Factor created Light Egyptian for Miss Lena Horne. It certainly seems unforgiveable that LB Mayer stabbed Horne in the back by giving Ava Gardner the role of Miss Julie in Showboat and then to top it all lent Gardner Horne's makeup!


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