Uptown, Downtown – On my way to see you
Leslie Uggams loves to sing “Stormy Weather,” but her robust voice remains as sunny as ever. The 67-year-old singer and actress proved as exuberant and resonant as ever in a 70-minute musical trip through her long career entitled “Uptown, Downtown.” The title of her smartly conceived show alludes to her long and distinguished career in musical theater — stretching from her early work at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre (between the ages of 9 and 16) through her 1968 Tony Award-winning performance in “Hallelujah, Baby!” to a recent stint alongside James Earl Jones in a moving Broadway revival of “On Golden Pond.”
Her show-stopping rendition of “Stormy Weather” near the end of her wide-ranging program on Oct. 10 augured well for her on-going efforts to take a musical by the same name about Lena Horne to Broadway.
That musical has so far played to acclaim in Philadelphia and Pasadena, and Uggams — clearly feeling the love of her audience — declared, “We need to bring it to Boston (as a pre-Broadway tryout).
“Savvy producers should gladly sign her and the show after seeing “Uptown, Downtown.” Decked out in a bespangled gown and moving nimbly across the Reagle stage to the rich accompaniment of a tuxedo-clad quintet, she performed with the power and soulfulness of a true diva.
Sharing glowing memories of a career that already spans six decades, she paid homage to such influences as Ella Fitzgerald with a playful “A Tisket,A Tasket” and Dinah Washington with a gutsy “I Wanna Be Around.”
She brought her remarkable combination of wide range and sharp technique to American songbook standards as different as “Them Their Eyes,” “Up a Lazy River” and “You Made Me Love You” — giving the last of these a definitive delivery. Uggams sang a lush cover of the Drifters hit “Up on the Roof “ with a vibrant guitar solo by Steve Bargonette. Her dynamic finish on the Jerry Herman gem “If He Walked into My Life” reminded this critic of her memorable earlier work in the Boston run of “Jerry’s Girls.”
The pleasures of her performance extended to other premiere composers besides Herman. “Uptown, Downtown” opened with an excerpt from “Rhapsody in Blue” — Dan Block notable on clarinet — and Uggams appealingly dramatic on the “Porgy and Bess” chestnut “There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.”
Later she would return to George Gershwin repertoire for a gorgeous “Summertime” and a sassy “I Got Plenty of Nothin’.”
All three selections suggested that it is high time that Uggams record at least one Gershwin collection. After her performance, she did tell the Banner that she would like to do just that. Her exuberant rendition of “New York, New York” near the start of the show made an equally compelling case for a Leonard Bernstein album and a tribute to premiere lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
If you cannot get enough of Uggams — and who can? — look for her recent CD “On My Wait to You.” Besides a wistful performance of the title song, look for such standouts as a moderate tempo “The Windmills of Your Mind,” a sensuous “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and a snappy “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”
Also look for the indefatigable Uggams as a caring grandmother raising three siblings in the 2010 independent film “Toe to Toe,” which focuses on the friendship of two lacrosse-playing school-girls — one African American and the other white.