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Theater Review

Singing the pain

Flawed yet exultant 'Stormy Weather' tells Lena Horne's story.

February 02, 2009|Charles McNulty | THEATER CRITIC

"Stormy Weather," Lena Horne's signature song, is now the title of a new musical biography recapping her bluesy struggle to stardom and the subsequent heartaches that released her anger and ripened her artistry. It may not have been raining all the time, but the downpours were fairly routine for the woman dubbed "the Bronze Venus," a moniker from an early film role that hints at the racial hurdles she faced in her trailblazing career.

The show, which had its West Coast premiere Friday at Pasadena Playhouse, stars Leslie Uggams as a jazzy older Lena and Nikki Crawford as the shy and vulnerable singer in her younger years. It's an ambitious, high-voltage affair, conceived and written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen and featuring a treasure trove of standards by such Golden Age pillars as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and Billy Strayhorn.

For those who want to celebrate this still-living African American legend and who are less concerned with dramatic craft than theatrical bounce, "Stormy Weather" will surely satisfy. This is first and foremost a tribute to a survivor who managed to overcome all forms of prejudice (including that of other blacks who accused Horne of selling out) while also contending with being blacklisted and a host of private tragedies that made her question the cost of fame.

Directed by Michael Bush with an affection that stops short of blind homage, the production doesn't stint in its effort to impress us with Horne's incredible tenacity and elegant style. And when Uggams and Crawford are raising their fists triumphantly in song, it's hard not to be swept up in the journey of a diva whose singing deepened as she grew more comfortable in her skin.

But Cooper Cohen's book, as well-meaning and scrupulously researched as it may be, turns Horne's tale into a Lifetime TV vehicle. This bereaved wife and mother is rendered glamorously ordinary in her sorrow, and the show doesn't want to waste a single tear.

Cooper Cohen relates the history of a Hollywood pioneer trying to transcend the maid and hooker stereotypes reserved for actresses of color. But these exceptional challenges, outlined with an encyclopedic swiftness, are presented in the cliched framework of a widow being roused from her solitary pity party by a wacky old girlfriend.

Kay Thompson (Dee Hoty), the vocal coach at MGM who helped sharpen Horne's technique, barges into her former protegee's apartment to wrestle her from despair. Horne has the opportunity to do a Broadway show based on her life but doesn't feel strong enough to survey her losses, most devastatingly her son (Jordan Barbour) and her husband, Lennie Hayton (a dashing Robert Torti). Yet she's no match for this whirlwind eccentric, whose powers of persuasion involve Godiva chocolates, pitchers of martinis and a hackneyed stream of celebrity sass.

Best known perhaps as the scene-stealing editor in "Funny Face" and the author of the "Eloise" books, Thompson (whom Liza Minnelli celebrated in her recent Broadway show, "Liza's at the Palace . . .") evidently treated all the world as a stage, and her objective here is to reunite her depressed pal with her adoring fans.

Mission accomplished: Horne scored one of her biggest successes in 1981 with the show "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," which earned her a Tony. But "Stormy Weather" isn't simply a behind-the-scenes look at this impressive comeback. Instead, it aspires, in Kay's relentlessly snappy words, "to resurrect the famous Horne gumption from out of the past."

Cooper Cohen's command of dialogue fails her at times, but she gracefully allows the Lenas to crisscross, with the older eyeing her younger self with a combination of understanding and frustration, hope and regret.

Uggams, who delivers potent renditions of "From This Moment On," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and, yes, "Stormy Weather," captivates in her nightclub turns even if she can't quite duplicate Horne's performing DNA. (Who could?) Let's just she say she does a better Uggams than Horne, but throughout she lends an unassailable dignity to her portrayal that suggests both a debt of gratitude and a shared knowledge. And when she sits wrapped in memories as Crawford magisterially sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," her silence breaks your heart.

Bush's production, enlivened by Randy Skinner's choreography and a large and peppy (though occasionally too broad) supporting cast, has exuberance to spare. James Noone's sleek sets and Paul Gallo's sharp lighting keep the joints jumping from Harlem's Cotton Club to the Luau in Beverly Hills, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes distill the decades with tailored flair.

If the overstuffed storytelling puts a dark cloud over the show's Broadway prospects, it's still easy to imagine "Stormy Weather" enjoying a successful commercial tour. There's enough grittiness from the two leads to compensate for all the wan predictability of the writing. Like the unforgettable song stylist they're channeling, they know how to infuse even banal lyrics with hurting truth.



'Stormy Weather'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 1.

Price: $48 to $78

Contact: (626) 356-7529

Running time: 2 hours,

40 minutes

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