Review: Stormy: The Life Of Lena Horne

The play with music gets its world premiere at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Bruce Lindsay is stunned by Camilla Beeput's solo performance

The world premiere of Stormy: The Life Of Lena Horne took place at the Norwich Playhouse. A powerful, enthralling play which tells of the singer, actress and activist’s life from her birth in 1917 to her solo Broadway show of the 80s, it managed to entertain and educate in equal measure. Actor Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme, writer of Five Guys Named Moe) is the creative director but at the show's heart is actor and singer Camilla Beeput (pictured right), who wrote the script and co-wrote the original music and lyrics with musical director and pianist Alex Webb. Beeput’s performance as Lena Horne (and everyone else) was stunning: she projected Lena’s glamour, beauty, vocal talent and personal struggles with great style.

The set was as basic as it could be - a black stage, with black drapes. An instrumental quintet was already in place as the lights went up: horns seated stage right with piano, bass and drums stage left, leaving the centre free for Beeput. Dressed in a black suit and shirt, hair cut short and side-parted, Beeput conveyed the story and played every character without recourse to props or costume changes. For most of the time she was Lena Horne, confident, poised, telling her story directly to the audience. But she was also Lena’s mother, father and grandmother, a popcorn-munching movie-goer, school bullies, both of Lena’s husbands, movie star Ava Gardner, Louis B Mayer, Café Society’s Barney Josephson, Walter Winchell, Cab Calloway… Beeput signalled a change of character by a shift in her position on stage, a change in body posture or a sudden alteration in her facial expression. Lena’s father Teddy signalled his appearance by miming the snap of his hat brim, Calloway by a flurry of jazz hands, her first husband with a quick adjustment of his tie. Lena’s grandmother utters the play’s key line: “Don’t ever hide from a storm, Lena”.

Beeput and Webb’s songs were strong and effective - some blues, some R&B, a couple of Broadway showstoppers and, for Teddy, some rap. The lyrics propelled the narrative just as effectively as Beeput’s script. As befits any telling of the life of Lena Horne, Stormy Weather made an emphatic appearance, Beeput closing act one with a beautiful rendition. For a first night there were few glitches. The words in some of Teddy’s raps were indistinct, the result of a tempo too rapid and a rhythm section slightly too loud: the pace and energy dropped briefly midway through act two. But these issues can be readily dealt with.

Lena Horne’s story is well worth the telling and Beeput, on stage throughout an exhausting 90 minutes, tells it in spectacular fashion. Stormy: The Life Of Lena Horne deserves a long and successful life, serving to remind us of one of America’s great performers in a way that does justice to Lena's own achievements and personal experiences.

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