Theater Review: Stormy Weather

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It takes a while for "Stormy Weather," a musical biography of entertainer Lena Horne, to hit its stride. But when the show finally does start to cook, the question lingers: Was it worth the wait?

That's the frustrating feeling behind this earnest attempt by writer Sharleen Cooper Cohen to shed some light on and pay tribute to the pioneering Horne, a performer whose own life was often filled with frustration and controversy. As Hollywood's first glamorous black star, Horne blazed a trail but also paid a price for her outspoken views, not to mention her interracial marriage.

In its favor, the show stars Leslie Uggams and has a fabulous songbook that includes such standards as "That Old Feeling," "Stardust," "From This Moment On," "How Deep Is the Ocean" and "The Lady Is a Tramp." But while the show doesn't turn Horne into a saint, the flawed book (suggested by the biography "Lena Horne, Entertainer") may leave an audience with the uneasy feeling that there's a better way to tell the story.

We meet Horne (Uggams) in the early 1980s, when she is looking back on her life and trying to understand why she's bitterly unhappy. This takes us into a conventional review of the highs and lows of her personal life and professional career from age 15 on. The problem is, Cohen has chosen to put the two Hornes on stage at the same time, with the older version reacting to the younger version (smartly played and sung by Nikki Crawford) and occasionally interjecting herself into the action. This curious attention-splitting device almost sinks the show in Act 1, though if it were handled better it might possibly work.

Vocally, Uggams is in top form, despite the fact her temperament and performing style -- warm and inviting -- isn't an ideal fit with the more guarded and aloof Horne. Still, renditions of "Honeysuckle Rose," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Stormy Weather" run the gamut from smolder to sizzle.

The strong supporting cast is led by Dee Hoty as irrepressible Kay Thompson, Horne's wisecracking vocal coach, mentor and friend. As legendary Ellington sideman Billy Strayhorn, Kevyn Morrow lends a silky style to "Lush Life" and "Lover, Come Back to Me." Robert Torti is convincing as husband Lennie Hayton.

Production values are strong, costumes are classy, and Linda Twine's musicians are solid. Now if director Michael Bush can only figure out a way to make the story work sooner and better.

Venue: Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena (Through March 1)
Cast: Leslie Uggams, NIkki Crawford, Dee Hoty, Kevyn Morrow, Robert Torti, Yvette Cason, Cleavant Derricks, Bruce Katzman, Jeffrey Rockwell, Wilkie Ferguson, Phillip Attmore, Jordan Barbour
Book: Conceived and written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen
Director: Michael Bush
Choreography: Randy Skinner
Musical direction: Linda Twine