Mirrors mirrors on the walls. That's what you're seeing all over the stage in James Noone's set, as Lena Horne (Leslie Uggams), now aging in the 1980s, observes her younger self (Nikki Crawford) through the travails of a difficult life. Her torments include having to surrender custody of her one, infant son, Teddy, to her estranged husband (Phil Attmore), as she chooses to leave New York to accept an offer by MGM Studios in Hollywood. For a light-skinned African-American chanteuse swimming upstream toward stardom in post-World War II America, the crosscurrents she encounters include the kind of stock bigotry (lobbying not to play maids in the movies) and gossip surrounding her secret, tempestuous marriage to Jewish arranger Lennie Hayton (Robert Torti). Another mirror image includes the resentful adult Teddy (Joran Barbour) and Horne's father, Teddy Sr. (Cleavant Derricks). Ensnared in Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunt of the '50s, and thereby shunned by the Hollywood studios, Horne finds employment in France (of course) and on Broadway. The despondency caused by waking up one day and realizing that she's lost all the men in her life, including Teddy from kidney disease, raises the question of how one endures life's tempests. (As Linda says in Death of a Salesman, "Life is a casting off.") Such are the metaphysics of Sharleen Cooper Cohen's musical, suggested from the Horne' biography, Lena Horne, Entertainer, and punctuated by more than two-dozen classic jazz-pop hits, including "Come Rain or Come Shine," "The Lady is a Tramp," "Hooray for Hollywood," "When You're Smiling," and the eponymous "Stormy Weather" -- all accompanied by a 12-person orchestra perfectly conducted by musical director Linda Twine, and beautifully sung by members of the large ensemble. In her adaptation, Cohen frames Horne's journey down memory lane via conversations with her life friend and rival, Kay Thompson (Dee Hoty). Though Horne's snide attitude toward this "friend," once attached to the Hollywood studio that betrayed her, creates a brittle and nicely unsentimental repartee, their conversations -- being locked in the past tense -- bog things down dramatically. Michael Bush's staging compensates for this drawback with sheen, partly because the songs are often so nicely tethered to Randy Skinner's sleek choreography, mostly because of Crawford's knockout voice and sexy charisma, and the tender-sassy interpretations by Uggams. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 1. (626) 356-7529.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: Jan. 30. Continues through March 8, 2009