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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Stormy Weather: Imagining Lena Horne

Stormy Weather
Davis Gaines and Leslie Uggams
Lena Horne is such a legendary entertainer that it might seem impossible to say too much about how great she is. But a new musical about her life manages to find a way. Stormy Weather: Imagining Lena Horne is nearly dizzying in its efforts to fit every major detail of Horne's life into a two and a half hour extravaganza. But when it slows down and lets the music do the talking - and especially when it lets the amazing Leslie Uggams sing some of Horne's classic hits - it winds up being a wonderfully entertaining show.

Stormy Weather opens in Horne's apartment in the early 1980s, as the singer anguishes over whether to accept an offer to star in a one-woman show on Broadway. She's been in virtual seclusion since the death of her husband Lennie Hayton, but now her old friend and vocal coach Kay Thompson (played by the delightful Dee Hoty) has come by to talk her into doing the show ... and to reminisce.

It's not a bad way to give some structure to a biographical musical, but the script here needs a lot of polish. Stormy Weather rushes from plot point to plot point, barely giving the audience a chance to absorb the crises that Horne has faced throughout her life. (There's also virtually no humor to lighten the mood; Hoty has a few good zingers, but this is the kind of show where calling the sexy Horne "an Afro-disiac" is supposed to be funny.)

To her credit, playwright Sharleen Cooper Cohen presents Horne as heroic, but not as a saint. Cohen's script shows Horne virtually abandoning her infant son when a film career comes calling, then trying in vain to justify her decision. Horne is also depicted unable to control her anger, much of which is directed at her family. Her family members are drawn sketchily here; they're nothing more than cardboard characters for Lena to yell at - and boy, does she yell. The show reaches its nadir in a scene in which Horne breaks down crying while spouting armchair psychology about how the men in her life "broke (her) heart by dying"; it's embarrassing to watch. (There's also a scene in which Horne spews profanities in an argument with her husband, which seemed to shock the parents who had brought young children along on the night I attended.)

All of those family struggles emboldened Horne for her biggest battle of all - trying to win the heart of the American public against nearly impossible odds. Not only did Horne have to struggle against the racism of white audiences, she also had to face attacks from members of the black establishment who considered her a sellout. (Her interracial marriage to Hayton didn't help her with either group.) Stormy Weather's most powerful scene is a recreation of Horne's speech before a NAACP convention - a speech that allowed her to make peace with her community and stake her claim as a pioneer in the fight for civil rights.

Uggams is onstage nearly every moment of Stormy Weather, but it's Kearran Giovanni, playing Young Lena, who does the majority of the singing (usually while Uggams smiles approvingly while sitting atop a piano). Giovanni acts the demanding part well, but she seems so intent on conveying the anguish that permeated Horne's private life that she fails to evoke the relaxed, confident sensuality that was such an important part of Horne's onstage persona. Giovanni's voice is more of a brassy Broadway belt than Horne's more delicate instrument was; Giovanni over-emotes on songs that Horne delivered with dignified restraint. As talented and gorgeous as Giovanni is, she doesn't really seem like a young Lena Horne. But then again, is there anyone who can convincingly portray Horne?

Leslie Uggams, that's who. Uggams is perfect for the role, bringing to it the charm and class that is a trademark of both Uggams and Horne. Her singing reveals a complete understanding of Horne's artistry; she goes all out in a driving "From This Moment On," then shows off Horne's subtle yet intense ballad style in a heartbreaking version of "Yesterday When I Was Young" that is the show's musical highlight.

Davis Gaines is outstanding as Lennie Hayton, and does a strong version of "Come Rain or Come Shine." Kevyn Morrow gives a nice, relaxed performance as composer Billy Strayhorn, although his role is somewhat unnecessary here. And Jared Grimes and Daniel J. Watts are sensational as a Nicholas Brothers-style tap dancing team. Randy Skinner's choreography here and elsewhere evokes the style of a bygone era perfectly. (Skinner also contributed wonderful recreations of scenes from two of Horne's landmark musicals, Jamaica and Cotton Club Revue of 1934.)

And then there's the score, full of classics that Horne either introduced or made her own, by songwriters like Arlen, Porter, Strayhorn, and Rodgers and Hart. The onstage band is far too small (only six musicians), but has a fairly rich sound.

Despite excellent direction by Michael Bush, Stormy Weather is a hurried hodgepodge of satisfying scenes and tedious ones. Cohen's hokey book lacks a dramatic focus and needs a lot of pruning. Yet the show is worth seeing for the great showmanship on display - the dynamic dancing by Grimes and Watts, the jazzy turn by Hoty, the assured performance by Gaines, and the strong support from an excellent ensemble. And, of course, it's worth seeing for Uggams, shining in a show that would probably be lost without her.

Horne did end up doing that Broadway show, of course, and Stormy Weather concludes with Uggams recreating that moment of triumph, singing - what else? - "Stormy Weather." It's a moment of triumph for Uggams, too, as she shows, just like Horne did, what star quality is all about.

Stormy Weather runs through Sunday, March 4, 2007. Ticket prices range from $35 to $55, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.

Stormy Weather: Imagining Lena Horne
Conceived & Written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen
Directed by Michael Bush
Music Direction ... Bruce Barnes
Orchestrations ... Daryl Waters
Choreography & Musical Staging ... Randy Skinner
Vocal Arrangements ... Bruce Barnes & Randy Skinner
Scenic Designer ... James Noone
Costume Designer ... Linda cho
Lighting Designer ... Traci Klainer
Sound Designer ... Nick Kourtides
Casting Director ... Janet Foster
Production Stage Manager ... Brian V. Klinger

Cast:
Leslie Uggams ... Lena Horne
Julian Brightman ... Barney Josephson, L.B. Mayer, Production Assistant, American Man, Fred, Perry Como, Photographer
Carey Brown ... Gail Lumet (Lena's daughter), Amanda Gerrard, Wardrobe Lady, French Woman
Julyza A. Commodore ... Gail as a child, Amy Lumet (Lena's granddaughter)
Davis Gaines ... Lennie Hayton
Kearran Giovanni ... Young Lena
Jared Grimes ... Avon Long, Building Super, Aiken Bones, Medgar Evers
Dee Hoty ... Kay Thompson
Julia Lema ... Edna Horne (Lena's mother), Ruby, Church Lady
Kevyn Morrow ... Billy Strayhorn
Katie O'Shaughnessey ... Hostess, Loreen Hall, American Woman, Assistant, Waitress, Wardrobe Lady
Destan Owens ... Teddy Jones (Lena's son)
Michael Scott ... Owney Madden, Stage Hand, Arthur Freed, Director, British Man, Gary Cooper, Drunk Man
Daniel J. Watts ... Louis Jones, Jivin' Jones
Dathan B. Williams ... Ted Horne, Sr. (Lena's father)


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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