ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Conceived and written by Sharleen Cooper Cohen and suggested by the autobiography of Lena Horne, it traces the life of that amazing performer in story and song, driven by the powerful performance and rich voice of Leslie Uggams as Lena. The score is a smorgasborg of the wonderful songs of the 1930s-1980s from "Deed I Do" which introduces Young Lena, played with sinous sizzling magnetism by Nikki Crawford, to "Lush Life" and "Yesterday When I Was Young," to the stunning finale, Lena's signature song "Stormy Weather."
Full value to the score which includes classics by Cole Porter, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer, Rodgers & Hart. More is given by the cast as directed by Michael Bush who astutely paints the emotional lives of the characters as well as skillfully segueing into the musical numbers.
Cohen begins her adaptation on the eve of Lena's anticipated one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music which opened on Broadway in 1981. Lena is portrayed as withdrawn and depressive. Her daughter sneaks in old friend Kay Thompson, played with impeccable timing and comic flair by Dee Hoty. As Lena takes a trip down the dark side of Memory Lane, Kay urges her to look on the sunny side of the street.
The memories begin with the pain of her parents' divorce. Powerfully-voiced Cleavant Derricks plays her father Teddy and Yvette Cason her mother Edna.
A memory that won't die is that of Lena's white husband, musical arranger Lennie Hayton, played by Robert Torti, whose chiseled handsomeness looks amazingly like the real Lennie. A fine actor, Torti sells his songs with fierce charm, particularly "Come Rain or Come Shine.".
The dazzling tapdancing of Phillip Attmore and Wilkie Ferguson is a visual delight, as is the exotic "Push Da Button" from Jamaica performed by Young Lena and the chorus. Randy Skinner's choreography is implemented by the orchestrations of Gordon Goodwin, who occasionally uses Lennie Hayton's own arrangement, as in "Stardust", sung by Jordan Barbour who effectively projects Lena's troubled son Teddy. Kevin Morrow as Billy Straymore brings in a welcome infusion of scat jazz, as does Uggams in "Honeysuckle Rose".
Martin Pakledinaz's opulent costumes are designed for Uggams more than Horne but are show-stoppers in their own right. This is almost as much Uggams's show as Horne's. Although Uggams and Crawford both try to suggest Horne, Crawford's uses some facial and physical mannerisms which are more imitation than essence and are actually a distraction. Both actresses do better when they use their considerable intuitive skills to sense the soul of the artist and her songs. It's hard to cherry pick from such a smorgasbord but Uggams' "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and Crawford's "Just Once" are stand-outs.
The show is too long, particularly the first act. Horne's amazing life, both as a performer, and a civil rights pioneer, who often sacrificed her family life for those causes, is the kind of struggle that makes dynamic theater and it's easy to see why book writer Cohen tried to pack everything in. Skillful chiseling is in order and this is too fabulous a show for it not to happen!