The Playhouse has been embracing, no, wrasslin’ the bejesus out of sassy, accomplished women this past year. And schooling us, too. Witness the chronicles of Viven Leigh, Talulah Bankhead, even Ann Landers. Now it’s Lena Horne’s turn. You know Lena, the fiery jazz/pop siren known for steaming the creases out of suits. If you don’t know her, after an evening at the Playhouse, you’ll get the picture. Lena is human and superhuman. This is theater, after all.
“Stormy Weather,” written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen, is a play with music by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Frankie Laine, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (of “Stormy Weather” fame), among others. The show is headlined by Leslie Uggams, the only relatively good thing about “Sing Along With Mitch,” for those who can rememeber back that far. What was this gorgeous, cheerful, curvy, Julliard-trained babe doing with those barbershop quartet squares? But that’s another musical the Playhouse should tackle before too long.
Back to Lena Horne. Man, that chick sizzled even on the white bread Andy Williams Show! Having never read her autobiography, nor seen her Broadway show, which ran for 60 weeks in the early ‘80s, I knew little about her. A Cotton Club chorus girl in the 1930s, a color-barrier-shattering movie star in the ’40s and later a civil rights activist, Horne battled a nasty divorce, lost custody of a child, caused a minor scandal by shaking Gary Cooper’s hand on national television (say what?), was blacklisted as a commie sympathizer and had to hide her 1947 interracial marriage to Lennie Hayton, which was illegal in California. Horne’s is a timely story in America’s history.
This new musical stars Leslie Uggams as the mature Lena Horne, reviewing her past with pal Kay Thomspon (Dee Hoty), a vocal arranger, swing singer and later, famed children’s book author who wrote the Eloise at the Plaza series. Younger Lena is played by the talented Nikki Crawford. The supporting cast is accomplished, especially mama Edna Horne (Yvette Cason), the young dancers (Phillip Attmore and Wilkie Ferguson) and Lena’s dad (Cleavant Derricks). The lighting is clever, and the set expands the playhouse into a Broadway theater, an MGM sound stage, a 1960s TV studios, and Horne’s Manhattan apartment. It’s a treat to watch the big seve-piece orchestra work the giant score and the action on stage.
The running time, including intermission, is just over three hours. There are lots of places to cut, not that it’s my job, but if you e-mail me and I’ll tell you where the scissors should go. That said, it’s good to see Leslie Uggams in fine form. And better still to get to know Lena Horne. After curtain, I went directly to Netflix.
I hope the incredible Miss Horne gets a bump from this show. She deserves it.
“Stormy Weather,” directed by Michael Bush runs January 21-March 1, 2009. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, 626.356.7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org. $62-$78 (subscription series available at reduced rates).
– Sandy Gillis