Hometown girl Leslie Uggams swooped over to Lincoln Center for a Saturday night doubleheader in the American Songbook series, noting that it was her first New York nitery stint in 18 years. Uggams has been giving exciting, professional performances for 57 of her 66 years, but her opening show demonstrated that time has only enriched her act. She sings, reminisces and totally charms the audience, winding up with an impressively tempestuous “Stormy Weather.”
Devised and staged by former Manhattan Theater Club artistic staffer Michael Bush, “Uptown Downtown” defines Uggams as “an uptown girl who worked her way downtown.” First stop was the Apollo on 125th Street. Uggams tells how she kept winning a weekly amateur show until management signed her as a featured attraction at age 9. She reprises her amateur-hour specialty, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and if she sang it anything like that back then, she must have been a knockout as a child performer.
There follows an especially effective section in which Uggams honors, and channels, the headliners for whom she served as opening act: Louis Armstrong (“Lazy River”), Ella Fitzgerald (“A-Tisket, A-Tasket”) and Dinah Washington (“I Wanna Be Around”).
Uggams also channels herself — her 24-year-old self. “My Own Morning,” the Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green ballad central to her Tony-winning perf in “Hallelujah, Baby!,” was marked by an irrepressible optimism and sunshine-bright resilience back in 1967. Her rendition on Saturday was every bit as mesmerizing, with the optimism undiminished but filtered through 40 years of weathered perseverance.
Uggams also scored notably with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s pop hit “Up on the Roof,” and Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life,” from “Mame.”
Music department, under Don Rebic’s direction, was especially strong. Walt Weiskopf played an impressive clarinet solo on “Lazy River,” with Uggams vocalizing the trumpet of Satchmo. Steve Bargonetti, on guitar, provided sole accompaniment for “Up on the Roof,” with the pair combining to evocatively re-create time and place. Uggams followed this with “Hello, Young Lovers,” backed only by Buddy Williams on drums, and effectively so.
Uggams has spent the past decade mostly in theater. Her most recent project is Lena Horne biotuner “Stormy Weather,” which played engagements at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater and Pasadena Playhouse. Her rendition of the title song sizzles, leaving audiences ready for another evening with Leslie Uggams.