Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Feb. 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
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 Teachouts Satchmo at the Waldorf at Court Theatre isnt 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 Yorks 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 hes 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 Courts program, he explains that Satchmo is a fictionalized account, though much of it is based on Armstrongs own words. The playwright also admits that he doesnt 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 Armstrongs gravely voice to Glasers New York accent to Davis cool-cat whisper. Shifts in Keith Parhams 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 theres little on record. The two initially met when Armstrong played Al Capones 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 Schultzs 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.
Armstrongs reason for hating Glaser is that he didnt 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 theres nothing he can do about it because Glaser is dead.
But while were 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 happeneda fiction that he believes is close to the truth. If he is right, the story is even sadder than if hes wrong.
In either case, I have some qualms about the multiple character device. While its 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 doesnt 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 doesnt try to impersonate Armstrong, which is a good thing, but he does make us feel like were getting a glimpse of the man behind the famous public persona.