Not quite two years ago, the legendary Leslie Uggams electrified audiences at the Pasadena Playhouse as the legendary Lena Horne in the award-winning bio-musical Stormy Weather. Sadly, less than a year later, the Pasadena Playhouse announced that it was closing its doors. Fast forward to November of 2010 and both Leslie and the Playhouse are back—reunited (and it feels so good) in Uptown Downtown, a two-hour nightclub act-like musical bio of Miss Uggams herself—and a fabulous evening of song it is!


Backed by a sensational eight-piece band led by pianist extraordinaire Don Rebic, the divine Miss U takes us on a journey from Uptown New York’s Washington Heights to Downtown Manhattan and the Great White Way, from her professional debut at the age of 6 to those 29-show weeks at Harlem’s Apollo Theater to TV fame on Sing Along With Mitch to Broadway stardom in her very own musical, Hallelujah Baby. And that’s only the first twenty-four years of her life!

Uggams’ “soiree” doesn’t delve much if at all into her personal life, other than a mention of her husband (a Wikipedia check reveals they’ve been married for forty-five years!), who encouraged her not to give up after an audition for the mini-series Roots was spoiled by a very bad makeup job. The veteran star of stage, screen and television prefers to concentrate on her show biz life, and on the many legendary figures she’s worked with—Louis Armstrong (who introduced her to the smell of marijuana long before she knew what it was), Mitch Miller (who stood up to Southern TV stations by refusing to isolate young Leslie into easily excisable segments), and Dinah Washington (who Uggams informed us had quite a mouth on her).

Mostly Uptown Downtown is about the music, with Uggams performing a couple dozen hits in a bevy of styles and sounding only a fraction of her 67 years, her voice still that unique blend of soul, power, and vibrato. There are the finger-snapping rhythms of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and the torchy “If He Walked Into My Life,” which Uggams sang in the Jerry Herman revue Jerry’s Girls. Leslie salutes Ella with “A Tisket A Tasket,” Billie (and Diana) with “Good Morning Heartache,” and Dinah with “I Wanna Be Around.” There’s also Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the Duke’s “Take The ‘A’ Train,” and a pair of songs from Hallelujah Baby, “My Own Morning” and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough”

Uggams proves herself not afraid to take risks with “Up On The Roof” and “Yesterday/Yesterdays,” sung as slow and silky as can be with just Leslie and the masterful Andrew Synowiec backing her on guitar. She takes an even bigger risk by performing a jazzy, up-tempo “Hello Young Lovers” with only the drumbeats of Gordon Peeke as accompaniment. Need I say that she scores homeruns each time?

Uptown Downtown is the conception of Stormy Weather director Michael Bush, once again assuming director’s reins here—and terrifically so. Uggams’ costumes by Tosca New York wouldn’t be my choices for her, but they are lit gorgeously by Steven Young. Sound engineer Eric Thompson insures that the evening’s tunes are mixed to perfection. The terrific orchestrations by Gordon Goodwin are performed by musical director Rebic, Synowiec, Peeke, Sal Lozano (woodwinds), John Fumo (trumpet), Charlie Morillas (trombone), Joel Hamilton (bass), and David Witham (synth). Ronn Goswick is stage manager.

Thanks to the music and magic of Uptown Downtown, Leslie Uggams and the Pasadena Playhouse are back in full force—news to trumpet during the holiday season.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
–Steven Stanley
November 23, 2010
Photos: Joseph Moran

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