Review: “Satchmo at the Waldorf”

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Barry Shabaka Henley as Louis Armstrong
Barry Shabaka Henley as Louis Armstrong

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Feb. 14
Tickets: $45-$65
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic
“I am here is the cause of happiness” was a favorite saying of the late, great jazz trumpeter, singer, and composer Louis Armstrong, but the man who emerges in the Midwest premiere of Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” at Court Theatre isn’t all that happy.

When we first see him in a stark, dark, mirrored dressing room (designed by John Culbert) backstage at the Empire Room of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March, 1971, four months before his death, the 70 year old is in poor health and immediately resorts to his oxygen machine. During the course of 90 intermission-less minutes, he reminisces about his life, both addressing us directly and periodically recording on his beloved reel-to-reel tape recorder for a book he says he’s working on. He hits all the well-known tropes, such as his impoverished childhood in New Orleans’ Storyville, his early years in Chicago, his success in New York, his world-wide fame as an ambassabor of jazz, and his musical innovations, but two themes loom large: his belief that Joe Glaser, his manager for 40 years, betrayed him, and his resentment of those who accused him of being an Uncle Tom.

Teachout is drama critic for “The Wall Street Journal,” and this is his first play. Originally produced in 2011, it follows on the heels of his biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” In an essay in Court’s program, he explains that “Satchmo” is a fictionalized account, though much of it is based on Armstrong’s own words. The playwright also admits that he doesn’t like a lot of one-man shows because they lack conflict, and “the trick to making a one-man play dramatic is finding a way to make that conflict palpable, even visible.”

What Teachout has done to create visible conflict is add two characters, Glaser and Miles Davis. They and Armstrong are all played by Barry Shabaka Henley, who gives a virtuoso performance, swearing like a trooper and often switching in an instant from Armstrong’s gravely voice to Glaser’s New York accent to Davis’ cool-cat whisper. Shifts in Keith Parham’s dramatic lighting accompany these changes.

While Davis voices the criticisms of a younger generation of black musicians who felt Armstrong became a clown who sucked up to the white man, the main thread in an evening that seems to meander more than it actually does is the complicated relationship between Satchmo and Glaser, whose monologues Teachout made up, because there’s little on record. The two initially met when Armstrong played Al Capone’s Sunset Cafe (called “Club here) on the South Side, which Glaser managed, and several years later Armstrong asked the mob-connected Glaser to get him out of a jam with Dutch Schultz’s gang.

The trusting musician also made the tough-as-nails wheeler-dealer his manager, relinquishing control over bookings, band hiring, finances, and all the other business aspects of his career in exchange for as many opportunities to play his music as possible. Glaser kept him on the road 300 days a year, shaped his career by turning him into a showman with an emphasis on his singing, and made both of them lots of money.

Armstrong’s reason for hating Glaser is that he didn’t leave him part of the business or anything when he died, which happened several years before the play takes place. He also points out that his supposed best friend, like Bing Crosby who also helped his career, never had him over to his home for dinner because he was black. In retrospect, he feels both betrayed and exploited, and there’s nothing he can do about it because Glaser is dead.
But while we’re wondering whether or not Armstrong is correct or at least to what extent Glaser took advantage of him, Teachout gives us his interpretation of what happened—a fiction that he believes is close to the truth. If he is right, the story is even sadder than if he’s wrong.

In either case, I have some qualms about the multiple character device. While it’s effective at times, it also can be a distraction. I found “Satchmo at the Waldorf” most engaging when Armstrong was talking about his music, playing and commenting on a few excerpts, ranging from his love of opera to his candid opinion of “Hello, Dolly!” The show doesn’t pretend to be a full biography, but I would have liked a little more, say, about his time in Chicago, or life with his other wives besides Lucille (the last, who he does talk about), or his travels. Although racial prejudice certainly had a profound impact on him, as did the fact that he was embraced more by white audiences than black ones, the discussion of these subjects become a little repetitious, even if his humor mitigates this.

Most of all, though, Henley simply does a fine job. He doesn’t try to impersonate Armstrong, which is a good thing, but he does make us feel like we’re getting a glimpse of the man behind the famous public persona.