This one man show is a tribute to trumpet legend Louis Armstrong. Playwright Terry Teachout derived this play from his book “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” Set in 1971, Teachout imagines Armstrong reflecting on his life backstage a few months before his death. It’s a peek into Armstrong’s public and private personas. Onstage, he has established himself as a gregarious entertainer who animatedly charms a predominately white audience. During the play, we see him offstage at the end of his life. We listen to the storyteller, with a propensity for profanity, share his heartache over his estranged relationship with his manager and being shunned by black musicians.
The extraordinary Barry Shabaka Henley plays the legendary Armstrong and other characters. Under the direction of Charles Newell, Henley transitions from character to character. Often times, Henley will turn to a lit-up mirror along the back to pontificate as Armstrong or Manager Joe Glaser or even Miles Davis. Initially, the choice has mystical theatrics. Later, the otherworldly look feels too contrived. Henley easily transitions back and forth from character to character. He doesn’t require the additional orchestration for his transformations. He can go from Louis to Joe without pausing.
These staged moments add to the repetitive nature of the show. Miles Davis (played by the versatile Henley) states how Armstrong has disappointed the black community by show-boating to white people. Both Henley’s delivery and the comment captivate… the first time. Davis comes back later and basically repeats himself. And Joe Glaser does a lot of rehashing throughout the show. The reiteration waters down the drama. The lack of tension combined with Henley’s deep storytelling voice lulls me like an NPR segment. In the cosy confines of Court Theatre, I momentarily nod off but don’t miss anything.
There are plenty of fascinating nuggets about Armstrong’s life. Teachout teases out some. We learn his mother was a prostitute. He was married four times. He smoked pot and cussed… a lot! Teachout spends a lot of time telling us about Armstrong’s manager and his black musician rivals. I don’t really care about his professional turmoil. I’m more interested in the man personally. His music inspirations and aspirations. I wanted to know about being married to a fourth wife for thirty years and why he was he even called ‘Satchmo’ and how much pot was he smoking. I was looking for Louis Armstrong unplugged.
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF is a behind-the-music glimpse at Louis Armstrong.
Running Time: One hundred minutes with no intermission
At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue
Written by Terry Teachout
Directed by Charles Newell
Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm
Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:30pm
Thru February 7th
Buy tickets at www.courttheatre.org
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.