Leslie Uggams’ fate was sealed early. With two show business parents — her father was a singer and her mother a dancer — there was little doubt about her career path.
“Yeah, I was a little ham,” laughed Uggams, a star of stage, television and film and the first black female singer to be featured regularly on a weekly, prime-time television show (“Sing Along with Mitch,” 1963). “I always loved to sing, and being just a little girl I loved to dance. Any opportunity I got I’d take it.”
Fortunately, along with the desire to perform, she had a wonderful voice. While her parents’ own dreams of stardom never materialized, their daughter was a huge hit at an early age. At 6 she had a recurring role as Ethel Waters’ niece in the 1950 television show “Beulah,” and at the age of 9 she was performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, opening for legends like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
She will share those memories and others — she had her own TV variety series and numerous successes on the Broadway stage — with Capital Repertory Theatre audiences when her one-woman show, “Uptown, Downtown,” opens in Albany on Tuesday night and runs through July 31.
“The show is based on my career and my experiences with the people I worked with,” she said in a phone conversation from her home in New York City earlier this month. “The response I got when I first did it was unbelievable. People were telling me: ‘Leslie, we love your stories. You gotta pursue this further.’ ”
‘Uptown, Downtown,’ with Leslie Uggams
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday — through July 31
HOW MUCH: $75-$20
MORE INFO: 445-7469, www.capitalrep.org
She first put together the act for the Jazz at Lincoln Center series early in 2009, and in November of that year she was performing a full-scale production of the show, opening at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.
For Gazette theater writer Paul Lamar’s review of this show, click here.
“The reaction we got at Lincoln Center and when I did it for three weeks at the [Cafe] Carlyle [in New York] was so great we decided to make it a real theatrical event,” she said.
“I realized I could have talked all day about my television show, so we made it a two-hour show. It started out as a one-nighter, and now it just keeps on going.”
Uggams sings about 20 songs during the course of the show, and is accompanied by conductor and pianist Don Rebic, Buddy Williams on the drums and Steve Bargonetti on the guitar. Capital Region musicians Mike Wicks (bass) and Vincent Bonafede (keyboard) will join the act for the Capital Rep run. Michael Bush, who helped Uggams create the play, is directing.
Her TV variety series, “The Leslie Uggams Show,” premiered in the fall of 1969. It was a replacement for “The Smothers Brothers’ Show,” canceled by CBS earlier in the year, and on Sunday nights Uggams was up against NBC’s powerhouse western, “Bonanza.” Her show was cut from the schedule after just 10 airings.
“We replaced the Smothers Brothers, so the show came with a lot of pressure,” she remembered. “I thought we put together some fabulous shows and had some great guest stars, but at some point we realized that keeping our show on the air wasn’t a part of their [CBS] plans.”
Despite the short run, Uggams said the show was a great experience.
“I thought we did a lot of unique and innovative things, and I realized I was sort of a pioneer,” she said. “We had a sitcom within a variety show, and we had black writers [including actor John Amos] and black choreographers. I never felt overwhelmed, I had great people working with me, and I loved it.”
A year before her television show premiered, Uggams showed she had the chops to also excel on the Broadway stage, earning the 1968 Tony Award for Best Actress for her work in “Hallelujah Baby.” She also played Cleopatra on Broadway in the 1968 production of “Her First Roman,” and was back on TV in 1977, earning an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Kizzy in the 1977 landmark miniseries “Roots.” In 1979, she again found a role in a popular TV miniseries, “Backstairs at the White House.”
“Television was a nice break from the theater, but then it’s really nice to get back to the theater,” said Uggams, who played Reno Sweeney in a national tour of “Anything Goes,” and then replaced Patti LuPone in the role on Broadway. “I love the live audience and that immediate response you get from them. You’re out there creating and people are reacting to it. When you do TV or film, you’re hoping the audience loves it but you never know how they’re going to respond.”
In 2002, Uggams performed on Broadway in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and in 2005, she played opposite James Earl Jones in a Broadway revival of “On Golden Pond.” In 2009 and 2010, she played Lena Horne in the Pasadena Playhouse production of “Stormy Weather: The Story of Lena Horne.”
“I had met her many, many times, and she was just fabulous,” Uggams said of Horne, who died in May 2010 at the age of 92. “I think it’s a great musical with incredible music, and I love the Pasadena Playhouse. Playing Lena on that stage was just a wonderful experience for me.”
Uggams, who also recently jumped back into TV as a guest star on TNT’s “Memphis Beat,” playing Alfre Woodard’s mother, won’t be making her first trip to Albany. For much of her youth, including the age of 15 when she won $12,500 on “Name That Tune,” Uggams came to Albany to listen to her uncle, jazz musician John Smith.
“We’d spend two weeks in Albany every summer since the time I was a small child,” said Uggams, who has been married to Grahame Pratt since 1965. The couple have two children, including a daughter, Danielle Chambers, a musical theater performer like her mother.
“My aunt and uncle lived in Albany, and we’d go up there to listen to my uncle play his music. I have some fond memories of the place. To go back there and do my show in Albany is going to be great.”
At 67, she doesn’t seem to be slowing down much at all, although she did just recently have two experiences related to aging.
“I have this gorgeous, little 10-month old named Kassidy, so I’m a grandma for the first time, and I just had knee replacement surgery,” she said. “I have two wonderful grown children and my husband of 45 years, so I don’t feel like I’m slowing down at all. I work out a lot. I guess I have great genes. That helps keep me young.”
The voice is there
As for her voice, critics on both coasts agree: Uggams hasn’t lost anything.
In comparing her to Horne, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Uggams “has the same dazzling smile and a softer version of the same internal conflict between making nice and making nasty.”
As for the Los Angeles Times, Daryl H. Miller wrote, “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.”
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Life and Arts