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Theater review: Leslie Uggams in 'Uptown Downtown' at Pasadena Playhouse

November 21, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Uggams Eight musicians flank Leslie Uggams as she sings her way through "Uptown Downtown," an autobiography told in music, at the Pasadena Playhouse. But really, there are nine instrumentalists up there, because Uggams herself could be listed among the horns.

Whether dialing down her voice so that it sounds like a muted trumpet or opening up, full on, as a one-woman brass section, she emits such exuberance that listeners can't help but foot-tap or head-bop along.
"Thank you, and welcome to my soiree," she says after her opening number, and that's right on the money, because through sheer force of personality, she turns the big, grand Pasadena Playhouse into an intimate nightclub.

In two hours and two dozen songs, Uggams outlines her career from her youth in Washington Heights and early performances at the Apollo Theater to her grown-up achievements on Broadway and in television -- hence the show's Manhattan-tracing title.

It's not the nation's best-known life, even though it includes barrier-shattering performances as the inspirational lead character in the 1967 Broadway musical "Hallelujah, Baby!" and as Kizzy in the galvanic 1977 television event "Roots." But it's a life from which we can take heart, as when Uggams, 67, recounts the stand that Mitch Miller took in casting an African American on "Sing Along With Mitch," resulting in happy outcomes for Uggams, for Miller and, in a small way, for a country in which open-mindedness had been underestimated.

Presented earlier this year at Lincoln Center, "Uptown Downtown" arrives here as a modestly sized offering in the playhouse's carefully modulated return from the brink. The show is conceived and directed by Michael Bush, who last year at the playhouse directed Uggams in the Lena Horne biography "Stormy Weather." The title song from that show is, of course, included.

From her career, Uggams also revisits the yearning, insistent "My Own Morning" and "Being Good Isn't Good Enough" from "Hallelujah, Baby!" and the torchy tug between regret and defiance of "If He Walked Into My Life" from the Jerry Herman compilation show "Jerry's Girls."

Others songs are included because they're wrapped into her memories, emerging as a laid-back take on the Drifters' hit "Up on the Roof" (performed as a languorous duet with acoustic guitar) and a sweetly sad rendition of the Billie Holiday- and Diana Ross-recorded "Good Morning Heartache."

The jazzy, ever-inventive orchestrations are by Gordon Goodwin and by the show's music director, Don Rebic, an old-school presence who, while conducting from the piano, counts-in the band with a lively "a-1-2-3-4" or stands to indicate a cutoff with an emphatic nod of his head.
In the end, you might feel that you still don't know much about Uggams; the stories she shares are mere snippets. But you should leave with a firm grasp of how she makes a song her own, using it to express something deep inside. And probably, that's all you need to know.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Uptown Downtown," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Also 2 p.m. Nov. 24. No performance Thanksgiving Day. Ends Dec. 12. $39 to $69. (626) 356-7529  or Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Leslie Uggams in "Uptown Downtown" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Credit: Jim Cox