‘Satchmo at the Waldorf’ Review - Court Theatre Trumpets a Layered Portrait of Louis Armstrong

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

Typically, a cast of one involves a simple equation: one performer equals one role. In the case of “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” now at Court Theatre, the formula is tweaked: one performer, the talented Barry Shabaka Henley, equals more than one voice.

 

 

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

 

First and foremost, Henley plays the legendary jazz trumpeter/composer/singer Louis Armstrong. Complicating the equation, veteran “Wall Street Journal” drama critic and first-time playwright Terry Teachout tasks his one-man band with channeling the additional voices of Louis’ manager of 40 years, Joe Glaser, as well Louis’ musical contemporaries, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. The result is a layered portrait of complicated figure — broken up at times by static that even director Charles Newell’s nuanced conducting can’t drown out.

 

 

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

 

The uninterrupted 90-minute show opens with a jarring image: after playing a set at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the musician known for his broad smile and upbeat rendition of “What a Wonderful World” shuffles into a dressing room (evocative set by John Culbert) in desperate need of a hit from an oxygen machine. It is March 1971, months before the jazz great would die in his sleep of a heart attack at age 69.

 

 

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

 

Award-winning stage and screen actor Henley makes a credible stand-in for Armstrong, capturing the performer at stages throughout his life: from his impoverished childhood in New Orleans, where he danced for pennies on the streets (he was said to have squirreled away the coins in his mouth, earning the nickname “satchel mouth,” later to become “Satchmo”); to international stardom; to a cozy domestic life in Queens with fourth wife Lucille.

 

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

 

There is built-in contrast between Armstrong’s jovial public persona and his foul-mouthed offstage self, but, writes Teachout, “You can’t have a real play without conflict, and the trick to making a one-man play dramatic is finding a way to make that conflict palpable, even visible.”

 

 

 

Basing the play on his 2009 biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” Teachout found that conflict in the character of Joe Glaser, the tough-talking Chicagoan who was running shows for Al Capone when he met Armstrong. Later, squeezed between his desire to perform and pressure from gangsters, Armstrong turned to Glaser to manage his career. Glaser gave him that help and savvy advice, earning Armstrong wider audiences and bigger purses, much of that money diverted by Glaser, “though, like all the best villains, Glaser isn’t nearly as simple, or evil, as he looks,” writes Teachout.

 

 

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

 

Lighting by Keith Parham cues the abrupt shifts from Armstrong to Glaser, his harsh, nasal voice the opposite of Satchmo’s mellow one, but one problem in this production is that Henley doesn’t always succeed in sticking to Glaser’s voice, instead allowing Armstrong’s to creep in — with the unwanted effect of at times sounding like a possessed man speaking in tongues. Henley does much better capturing the effete tones of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who labeled Armstrong a sellout for giving his adoring crowds what they wanted in songs like “Hello, Dolly!” rather than sticking to his roots as a virtuoso horn player.

 

 

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo

 

Court Theatre makes a fitting home for the play. Teachout requested Newell as director, and he says, “I also want something ‘Satchmo’ has never had before [it ran off Broadway in 2014 and in other venues]; I want to see it being played in front of racially mixes audiences.” The Chicago production has also extended the play beyond the stage with the Louis Armstrong Festival, an array of exhibits and performances with community partners that include the Beverly Arts Center.

 

 

 

Satchmo at the Waldorf

 

Extended through February 14, 2016

 

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago (free garage parking during evening performances)

 

Tickets $45 – $65 at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472

 

 

 

Photos: Michael Brosilow

 

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