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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Stormy Weather

Also see Sharon's review of Pippin

Nikki Crawford and
Leslie Uggams

The first word that comes to mind to describe Lena Horne is "incomparable," so it's no wonder that the new musical Stormy Weather has given the task of portraying her to not just one woman, but shares it among two. "Lena" is played by Leslie Uggams, while "Young Lena" is played by Nikki Crawford. But there's no simple dividing line between the two where, for example, Young Lena grows into Lena and is never seen again. Instead, the two share the job throughout the show.

It is, in some ways, an inspired choice; the two are exceptionally good together. Indeed, in one of the better sequences of the show, Horne's early years at MGM are illustrated by a series of brief moments where Crawford, in costume, holds a pose in a Hollywood spotlight, while Uggams, off to the side, sings a few lines of "From This Moment On." It's a perfect use of the two—Crawford captures Young Lena's glamour, while Uggams demonstrates Lena's talent.

Which isn't to say that either one requires the other in order to fully portray Horne in any given scene. But each actress does have weaknesses, and Stormy Weather is at its best when it emphasizes their strengths. Uggams is terrific at standing center stage and just singing one of Lena's songs; whether bold, reflective, or flirtatious, her delivery is masterful. However, she's less good at the book scenes. This is particularly true where playwright Sharleen Cooper Cohen hasn't given her much to work with. (Older) Lena spends most of the play in a state of depression and self-pity. She says things like, "How can I sing? My heart feels like lead"—the lines sound trite and Uggams's performance comes off as overwrought. For her part, Crawford looks beautiful, and her voice sounds lighter and more colorful than Uggams's. Yet when she attempts to sing as Horne, she seems to be trying too hard to affect Horne's mannerisms—they don't seem natural coming from her. Crawford also has an unfortunate tendency to oversell a number. To be sure, the opening night audience was extremely appreciative of both actresses' work in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," but it seemed to me that Crawford tried to wring way too much emotion out of the song, and lost the magic partway through.

The play, which has no original music, is another "bio-musical"; here, the score is comprised of more than 25 standards by Porter, Berlin, Arlen and others. With a score that can't fail, the issue really comes down to the book, which is somewhat problematic. The concept is that Lena, depressed by the recent deaths of people who were important to her, reflects over her life—sometimes speaking directly to her younger self, and sometimes speaking with the ghosts of those who are gone. The problem is that characters really need to be established before their deaths—early in the show, the spirits of the four men Lena has lost sing "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," but we haven't even met one of them yet, so we can't understand his importance to Lena. A more fundamental problem is that Horne's life is portrayed through what feels like a series of unrelated vignettes—there are very few plotlines that are actually followed from one scene to another. One of the more successful ones is Horne's interest in playing Julie in Show Boat—we're shown that she wants the part from the day she meets L.B. Mayer, so we understand her feelings of disappointment and betrayal when the role goes to Ava Gardner. Other plotlines simply aren't established. In the second act, Horne's daughter explodes at her, but we've never seen this anger build. In the first act, representatives from the Negro Actors Alliance ask Horne not to sign her contract with MGM, for fear of a backlash from the studios; we never see if this backlash manifests, or if Horne had further difficulty with members of the Alliance for going against them.

But in the midst of this, there are some standouts. Dee Hoty's turn as Kay Thompson is delicious. When she and Uggams trade barbs, it's some of the snappiest dialogue in the show. (And if you sit far enough back, you'll wonder if there isn't another actress playing the bubbly "Young Kay"—there isn't). Phillip Attmore and Wilkie Ferguson nearly stop the show with their electric tapping. And the entire company comes together—in what is the only full ensemble number in the show—for a rousing and moving "This Little Light of Mine," in the context of the Civil Rights struggle. There are definitely some moments in Stormy Weather that are hugely entertaining; but it doesn't quite feel like a complete musical yet.

Runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through March 1, 2009.  For tickets and information, see

Pasadena Playhouse—Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Ken Novice, Interim Managing Director; Tom Ware, Producing Director; Produced by special arrangement with Stewart F. Lane, Bonnie Comley and Armica Productions—proudly presents: Stormy Weather. Conceived and Written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen. Suggested by the biography Lena Horne, Entertainer published by Chelsea House. Scenic Design James Noone; Costume Design Martin Pakledinaz; Lighting Design Paul Gallo; Sound Design Lewis Mead; Principal Wigs and Hair by Paul Huntley; Wig and Hair Design Carol F. Doran; Orchestrations by Gordon Goodwin; Dance Arrangements by Randy Skinner; Conductor Linda Twine; Press Representative Patty Onagan; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A., Liz Lewis, C.S.A.; Assistant Director Lisa Dozier; Associate Choreographer Jeremy Benton; Production Stage Manager Lurie Horns Pfeffer; Assistant Stage Manager Lea Chazin; Music Direction by Linda Twine; Choreography by Randy Skinner; Directed by Michael Bush.

Jivin' Jones/Louis Jones - Phillip Attmore
Teddy Jones - Jordan Barbour
Edna Horne Rodriguez/Ruby/Church Lady - Yvette Cason
Young Lena - Nikki Crawford
Teddy Horne, Sr. - Cleavant Derricks
Aiken Bones/Medgar Evers/Avon Long/Building Super - Wilkie Ferguson
Child Gail/Amy Lumet (mats.) - Ashley Greene
Kay Thompson - Dee Hoty
L.B. Mayer/Perry Como/Barney Josephson/American Man/Photographer/Production Assistant - Bruce Katzman
Child Gail/Amy Lumet (eves.) - Chéri McKenzie
Billy Strayhorn - Kevyn Morrow
Arthur Freed/Owney Madden/Gary Cooper/Director/Lennie's Friend/British Man/Drunk - Jeffrey Rockwell
Lennie Hayton - Rober Torti
Gail Jones Lumet/Amanda Gerrard/French Woman/Wardrobe Lady - Toni Trucks
Lena Horne - Leslie Uggams
Loreen Hall/Hostess/Wardrobe Lady/American Woman/Production Assistant/Waitress - Diane Vincent

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- Sharon Perlmutter

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