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'Satchmo at the Waldorf' visits Louis Armstrong's not-always-wonderful world

Correspondent
Review: Louis Armstrong looks back in "Satchmo at the Waldorf" at @PBDramaworks.

If you're of a certain age, you can easily summon a memory of the late, great jazz musician Louis Armstrong.

He would be front and center on a bandstand, maybe on television, his right-hand fingers moving at sometimes unfathomable speeds on the keys of his trumpet, his left supporting the instrument and an omnipresent white handkerchief. Or he might be singing and scatting, the gravel seemingly embedded in his vocal cords giving his voice its singular sound.

Either way, Armstrong — the radiant, consummate entertainer — would leave you charmed.

"Satchmo at the Waldorf," a solo show running through June 12 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, offers scattered glimpses of the artist America came to know and love during a career that stretched from the 1920s until his death in 1971.

But the purpose of the illuminating play, written and directed by Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, isn't to show us the Armstrong we know. Instead, we come to understand the personal experiences and societal forces that shaped a legendary black musician, a man with a potty mouth and a fondness for pot, a guy who married four times but had one clear enduring love: his horn.

Teachout, a former jazz bassist, based the play on his biography "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." A respected critic who reviews productions throughout the country, he has also written biographies of Duke Ellington, George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken, as well as the libretti for three Paul Moravec operas. At Dramaworks, the critic-turned-playwright demonstrates his ability to craft a compelling production, with a great collaborative assist from set designer Michael Amico, costume designer Erin Amico, lighting designer Kirk Bookman and Matt Corey, whose own background as a musician immeasurably enhances the subtle richness of his sound design.

Los Angeles-based actor Barry Shabaka Henley, a performer with extensive film and TV credits, has the daunting task of bringing three men to life: Armstrong, his longtime manager Joe Glaser and jazz legend Miles Davis, whose biting criticisms of the older musician included calling the ready-to-please Armstrong an Uncle Tom.

The action takes place in Armstrong's dressing room backstage near the Empire Room at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March 1971. Coming offstage, the musician's first order of business is to inhale deeply from an oxygen tank beside his comfortable chair. Suffering from congestive heart failure, performing his last gig against the advice of his doctor, he will be dead in four months. But on this night, he is talkative and reflective.

Armstrong told stories with his music, of course. He shares vivid images from his past and confides that what's in his head "comes out the horn." Ranging back and forth through his life story, he speaks of his hardscrabble beginnings in New Orleans, where his mother worked as a prostitute in the city's Storyville neighborhood and his father took off shortly after Louis' birth. We learn that he wears a Star of David in tribute to the Karnofsky family, immigrant Jewish junk peddlers who gave the little boy odd jobs and loaned him the money to buy his first cornet.

The triumphs and the firsts are noted: first African-American performer to get star billing in a Hollywood movie (with Bing Crosby in 1936's "Pennies From Heaven"), first black artist to host a national network radio variety show, first jazz musician on the cover of Time magazine, knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts in 1964 with his recording of "Hello, Dolly!" But the grittier, more painful side of his history is also part of the picture that Henley and Teachout paint.

In the '20s and '30s, Armstrong played clubs linked to mob men Al Capone and Dutch Schultz. Forming a handshake partnership with his white manager, Joe Glaser, he spent some 300 nights a year on the road, frequently not being able to stay in the hotels where he and his band performed.

Though Armstrong made his manager a very wealthy player in the entertainment industry, Glaser never invited his star artist to his home, nor did he leave the musician a share in his management business. The ugly reason for that, unknown to and misinterpreted by Armstrong, is revealed near the end of the play.

"Satchmo at the Waldorf" asks much of the actor performing it, including the ability to shift quickly among its three distinct characters and engaging an audience for 90 minutes with a torrent of words, more than a few from the vulgar part of Armstrong's offstage vocabulary. At a matinee on opening weekend, Henley was still occasionally reaching for bits of his lines, but he impressively turned a one-man show into a three-character play.

In Teachout's play, Armstrong the beloved and innovative artist gets his due. And so does the man whose life out of the spotlight was far more complicated.

"Satchmo at the Waldorf" is running through June 12 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $64. To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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