Leslie Uggams’ triumphant evocation of Lena Horne’s spirit and talent is the main attraction, but bio-tuner “Stormy Weather” at the Pasadena Playhouse also boasts a cavalcade of sizzling standards, a p.o.v. and genuine emotionality. It should earn a wide and appreciative audience, especially with the addition of some stronger material in act one.
Librettist Sharleen Cooper Cohen has Horne virtually retired at age 64 in 1981, paralyzed at the prospect of a one-woman tell-all Broadway concert (it would become the Tony-winning “The Lady and Her Music”). As a warm-up, her mind wanders through her Cotton Club debut, marital and parental woes, movie debacles and latter-day civil rights involvement. Her younger self (Nikki Crawford) sings all the old songs while committing all the old mistakes, and whenever resolve flags, there are the triple-strength vodka martinis offered by wisecracking Hollywood colleague Kay Thompson (Dee Hoty).
The drinking should start sooner. Act one moves with dogged chronology through Horne’s ups and downs (largely her guilt over abandoning infant son Teddy for a West Coast career), with too-rare hints of the kaleidoscopic effect alcohol and memory can produce: Lena confronting a male quartet who will later influence her profoundly; mother Edna (an underused Yvette Cason) wordlessly teaching her daughter a gesture that today’s Lena perfects, making for a beautiful intergenerational trio.
Helmer Michael Bush could usefully guide Cohen to more such expressionism as a way of getting out of Lena’s official bio and into her head, along with cleaning up the expositional clunkers (“L.B., this is Lena Horne, and her father, Theodore Horne. L.B. Mayer and Kay Thompson”) and scraping up some better jokes.
Lena’s limited terp skills, reduce dance here, but choreographer Randy Skinner reflects a full panoply of postwar entertainment, from a Black Bottom-influenced Cotton Club “As Long as I Live” (with Wilkie Ferguson as premier dancer Avon Long) to two separate arrangements of “How Deep Is the Ocean,” mellow from Lennie Hayton (Robert Torti) and scat from Thompson.
Changing times are charted through Martin Pakledinaz’s impeccably researched costumes, and in the Lenas’ approaches to pop lyrics, the younger consciously restraining the honeysuckle drawl with which the old pro enchants listeners to their delighted doom. (Incorporating the 1981 concert’s dual use of the title song, ingenue sweetness in the first half and angry passion at the end, would work better than placing “From This Moment On” in three separate movies; MGM did poorly by Lena but did provide a healthy repertoire.)
The star’s liberation animates the infinitely stronger second act. Fed up with being “Saint Lena,” she walks out on the studio system that never quite knew what to do with her, while encounters with casual racism draw her to ’60s black-power rhetoric. The era’s freedom spirit is celebrated in a joyous “This Little Light of Mine” ensemble number, but it’s an uncomfortable dynamic in a mixed-race household.
The self-destructive gesture to cut loose long-suffering husband Lennie — Torti and Crawford shatteringly transcend cliches here — haunts her through the years and leads to her consciousness-raised finale.
Cast is strong even when the script lets them down. Hoty’s showbiz savvy matches that of Thompson herself, but the character needs to know less about Lena (so her probing has some point) and deserves her own epiphany moment somewhere. Cason and an equally underemployed Cleavant Derricks could readily the handle the parental arguments Lena says tormented her, though we never see them.
Ferguson and Phillip Attmore are terrific stand-ins for the Nicholas Brothers, though it’s a bit disconcerting to see them used exactly the way Hollywood exploited Fayard and Harold over the years: dropped in and out whenever convenient.
The physical production is a marvel of elegant economy. Paul Gallo’s smoky pinspots, evoking both nitery ambiance and a mind sorting itself out, bounce pleasingly off James Noone’s reflecting panels, which periodically become transparent to reveal Linda Twine’s peerless ensemble, a pit band for all seasons.
Even on the sidelines of the narrated events, Uggams’ glare captures attention and pays off when, in act two, we learn its source: the compromises a hard-to-pigeonhole talent had to make for the sake of finding and preserving her sense of self. Cohen deserves kudos for not flinching from a warts-and-all portrayal of a very much alive star, and Uggams and Crawford for playing her not with idolatry but complexity and compassion. That’s what becomes a legend most.