The legendary Lena Horne is brought to vivid life by a pair of stellar performers in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Stormy Weather. Like the Playhouse’s electric Ray Charles Live, Sharleen Cooper Cohen’s bio-musical (under the assured direction of Michael Bush) revisits the life of a show biz superstar through the eyes of her grown-up self, played here by triple-threat stage, screen, and recording star Leslie Uggams.  Young Lena is the equally gifted Nicki Crawford, and together they take the audience on a half-century journey from Harlem’s Cotton Club to the stages of the world—punctuated by some of the greatest songs of the era.

We first meet Lena in her early 60s, her life at a standstill due to the loss of all the most important men in her life—husband Lennie, son Teddy, and dear friend Billy Strayhorn. Longtime chum Kay Thompson, author of the Eloise books and a former MGM contract player herself, arrives at Lena’s New York apartment on a mission—to convince Miss Horne to resume her career and return to the Broadway stage in a one-woman show.

Kay’s arrival sends Lena on a journey through her past, beginning with her appearances at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. When 15-year-old Lena’s Cotton Club boss refuses to give her a raise and calls Lena’s mother Edna “Mammy,” the two determine to head for greener pastures.  

As Stormy Weather moves back and forth in time, we meet the various people in both younger and older Lena’s life, from her n’er-do-well father Ted Sr. to her teenage son, Teddy Jr., Student Body President of an all-white school and “enough to make any mother proud.” At times, the older Lena gives her younger self advice. “Stay away from Hollywood,” she cautions young Lena, but the aspiring singer’s dreams of stardom are too strong to resist, even if it means being forced by a court order to surrender infant Teddy to his father. 

At MGM, Louis B. Mayer examines Lena like a racehorse he’s thinking of buying, but for once Dad is there to defend his daughter.  “I can afford to hire her a maid, but I won’t allow her to play one.” he tells the studio head.  That seems fine with Mayer, who envisions Lena as “the first glamorous Negro woman in the movies” or “the bronze Hedy Lamarr.” 

Stormy Weather deals with Lena’s life not only as a showbiz icon, but also as a civil rights pioneer.  Her fellow African-American actors complain to Lena about signing with MGM because, they say, if she signs a contract, then the other studios will think that all black actors want studio contracts and won’t be willing to hire any of them. Nonsense, replies Lena.  “I’m taking you all with me, and that’s a promise.” 

As Uggams sings “From This Moment On,” Crawford appears in a series of gowns on a series of movie sets in a montage of Lena’s early Hollywood flicks. There’s Cabin In The Sky, and Panama Hattie, and Thousands Cheer.  Nevertheless, despite rising up the Hollywood ladder, Lena still finds herself surrounded by racism.  When she performs a musical number in a mainstream (i.e. not “All Colored”) Hollywood film, the song is cut when the movie is shown in the South. Her West Hollywood neighbors circulate a petition to get her out of the neighborhood, and when Lena is invited to a Hollywood party, it is to sing and not as a guest.  “I’m nothing but a maid in gowns,” she complains.

Stormy Weather focuses both on Lena’s long friendship with Kay Thompson and on her relationships with the men who loved her. There was black musician Billy Strayhorn, “openly gay” decades before there was even such a term, with whom romantic sparks ignited nonetheless.  Even more important was Jewish-American musical conductor-arranger Lennie Hayton whom Lena eventually married in Europe, despite their marriage being illegal in half of the 48 states.

Throughout Stormy Weather, musical numbers tie the present and the past, and the older Lena with her younger self and her memories. The two Lenas sing “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” to both infant Teddy in his bassinet and grown-up Teddy.  The four most important men in Lena’s life (Billy, Lennie, Ted Sr. and Teddy) serenade her to “Let Me Sing And I’m Happy.”  The two Lenas duet “The Lady Is A Tramp” as Lena and Lennie return to America to face the music following their European wedding.

And what performances the two Lenas give!

Uggams, though in her younger day not the same “type” as young Lena Horne, has matured into the same elegant beauty that characterized the later Lena, and when she sings, it is Uggams’ distinctive voice given just enough hints of Lena’s to create the illusion that we are listening to the legend. Uggams also proves herself a dramatic actress of the first order in a particularly powerful scene in which Lena, alone on stage, breaks down in wracking sobs about having lost all the men in her life who meant the most to her.

Crawford is more the traditional beauty, which makes her scenes as the younger Lena, especially in the gorgeous gowns and hairstyles Lena wore, all the more striking and memorable. Besides being a bang-up actress, like Uggams Crawford can sing up a storm, and when the two Lenas are duetting, it’s theatrical magic.

Broadway star Dee Hoty has already won the Barrymore Award role for her performance as Kay Thompson in a previous production, and no wonder. Hoty is Kay through and through, as anyone who has seen Thompson’s work in the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn musical Funny Face can attest, and gets to show off the sensational Hoty pipes in “You Let Me Down” and “How Deep Is The Ocean.”

The men in Stormy Weather are equally splendid.  Kevyn Morrow does beautiful work as Billy Strayhorn and sings Strayhorn’s signature “Lush Life” in a velvety smooth tenor.  Robert Torti, fresh from Smokey Joe’s Café, gives a particularly strong performance as Lennie, the man willing to go against half of the United States to marry the woman he loved.  Phillip Attmore and Wilkie Ferguson play multiple roles, the most scene-stealing of which are their show-stopping tap dance routines as Jivin’ Jones and Aiken Bones, just a few examples of Randy Skinner’s razzmatazz choreography. Jordan Barbour does sensitive work as Lena’s son Teddy, and what a voice he has when he duets “Stardust” with Uggams.  Cleavant Derricks is his usual charismatic self as Lena’s first husband Teddy Sr.  

Yvette Cason is a dynamo as Lena’s mother Edna, and Toni Trucks charms as Lena’s daughter Gail.  Both actresses play multiple roles as do Bruce Katzman, understudy Michael Scott (for Jeffrey Rockwell), and Diane Vincent, all excellent.  Chéri McKenzie and Ashley Green alternate in the role of granddaughter Amy.

Musical director Linda Twine on piano conducts a 9-piece Vegas-caliber orchestra. James Noone’s striking set design moves us quickly through time and space, aided by Paul Gallo’s pizzazzy lighting.  Top marks too for Lewis Mead’s sound design.  Best of all the design elements are Martin Pakledinaz’s medley of gorgeous gowns, which take us from the 30s to the 80s, and from the Cotton Club to the studios of MGM to the stages of Las Vegas. Kudos too to Paul Huntley and Carol F. Doran’s period wigs, Gordon Goodwin’s orchestrations, and Skinner’s dance arrangements.

Though Stormy Weather could stand to be trimmed by about twenty minutes, by the time Lena closed the evening with the title tune, I had been entertained, I had been moved, and I had learned much about the woman that is still Lena Horne, and that, I believe, is precisely what Stormy Weather sets out to do. Long live Lena!

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley 
February 3, 2009

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