The Pheasantry, London, U.K., January 15, 2017
Reviewed by Helen Theophanous for Cabaret Scenes
Lena was written by actress and singer Julez Hamilton who, with an assumed authentic Southern drawl in her speaking and singing voice, together with her 1940s hairstyle, became Lena Horne in this cleverly crafted tribute. Hamilton, however unlikely it seems, bore a convincing resemblance to her idol with her high cheekbones and deep-set eyes. She completely commanded the room with a gritty portrayal of Lena’s life, delivering dialogue with intense feeling and perfect timing. A superb actress, Hamilton’s seemingly instant final transformation of the star as a disillusioned lush cradling a glass of bourbon was riveting and moving. The songs were well chosen to illustrate the dialogue and Hamilton’s voice did not disappoint with its strength, clarity, control and impressive range. She swung standards such as “The Lady Is a Tramp” (Rodgers & Hart), “Honeysuckle Rose” (Fats Waller/Andy Razaf) and “Just One of Those Things” (Cole Porter). “A New-Fangled Tango” (Matt Dubey/Harold Karr) was delivered with help from a male audience member and never dropped a beat with well-timed glances and moves from Hamilton. Gary Bland appeared as the two influential men in Lena’s life, duetting on “It’s All Right with Me” (Porter) and a rather fussy arrangement of “All the Things You Are” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein). His romantic “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” (George & Ira Gershwin) was smoothly delivered.
Of the many highlights, “Stormy Weather” (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler) along with “Love” (Ralph Blane/Hugh Martin) and “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn) stood out, although the quartet in this first performance did not always gel entirely and some arrangements could have better reflected the styles and eras of the songs.
Using actual quotes from Lena, various scenarios were explored, such as the relationship with Ava Gardner and with Louis B. Mayer, enhanced by well-chosen songs such as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (Kern/Hammerstein) and “It’s All Right with Me.” A scene with Bland as Mayer offstage directing Lena for the screen was particularly amusing, as was an anecdote about Lena’s struggles with the French unisex plumbing arrangements on her first visit to Calais. Subtle references to racial discrimination and Lena’s career-move marriage to Lennie Hayton were sensitively covered.
Hamilton brought Lena into the room and the standing ovation was testament to the sold-out success of this production which deserves to be seen on a larger stage. It’s a very clever, well-crafted, highly engaging cabaret show and a perfect vehicle for Hamilton with her combined talents as a superb actress with a sublime voice. Billed as “A celebration of the magic of Lena Horne in her centenary year,” it exceeded expectations.