Louis Armstrong is divided in three parts. Or rather, it's Terry Teachout's one-man play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, about America's incomparable musician, that is trisected.
None of these three pieces add up to any sort of satisfying portrait with any depth or much riff of empathy. Adapted from Teachout's book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, the intermission-less drama only occasionally catches sparks, mainly thanks to actor Jerome Preston Bates, who slouches, wheezes, and hobbles his way through Armstrong's last days, then turns on the Edward G. Robinson cadence and plays smarmy agent Joe Glaser, married to the mob, and then, cool cat deluxe, Miles Davis, enhaloed in magenta smokey jazz whirls.
None of these three avatars bring anything of interest to Teachout's exceedingly dull drama. As theater critic at The Wall Street Journal, you'd think Teachout would know a thing or two about how to doctor a script, to make it flow, to do anything on stage except what we've seen so many times previously in any second-rate bio play. Reading the Wikipedia article about Armstrong is more replete with drama, contrast, conflict, and heart.
All the regular stuff of Armstrong's life is covered – his prostitute mom from Storyville, New Orleans' red light district; his hardscrabble young life in jail and orphan's home; his travels to Chicago with “King” Oliver, America's most influential jazz bandman; his brushes with mobsters Al Capone and Dutch Schultz; his Hollywood career; his phenomenal crossover appeal; his segregated existence when as a star he had to eat in the kitchen; his love of wife Lucille, his rock after years of floundering; and other high points checked off with Teachout's dutiful regularity. The lights flash, and now we're with Glazer, telling us how Armstrong was his meal ticket. The lights flash again and there's Bates as Miles Davis, ophidian smooth, school-educated, putting down oldster Armstrong as Uncle Tom.
Armstrong bestrode America's race era: Jim Crow, Little Rock, the nascent Black Power movement. He confronted Eisenhower over the President's waffling policies, but just wanted to play music. No one could play a trumpet like Louis, whether it be a Gershwin standard or a Fats Waller stomp, and he changed the face of American music with his Bach-like improvs and stirring musicality. He made jazz respectable, if not somewhat happy and sunny. Later, as grand old man of music, he bounced the Beatles off the charts with his cheerful rendition of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly and his signature piece, Theile and Weiss's What a Wonderful World, a kumbaya moment imbued with Armstrong's unerring sense of rhythm and personality.
Armstrong traveled with a tape recorder, and the play uses this tired gimmick as through-line. Every once in a while, he'll rewind the tape and we hear a snippet – all too brief – of his peerless rendition of Carmichael and Rodin's Lazy River or Oliver and Williams' West End Blues. Everything's too brief in this memory play, too hazy, stilted, predictable.
For all the play's stumbles, at least we have Bates to perform like Astaire. Nimble and shape-shifting, he brings Glazer and Davis to a life unknown to Teachout. These characters don't add to the drama, they just get in the way, but they're interesting footnotes as limned by Bates. Whose story is Teachout telling, anyway?
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But Bates' Satchmo is warm, bluesy, profane, and deliciously personable. At curtain, we don't know much more about him than when he lurches in at play's beginning gasping for oxygen, but his presence is, like Satchmo, encompassing, immensely likable, and thoroughly engrossing. Teachout may bore us, but not Satchmo.
What Armstrong loved, adored, lived-for more than anything was making music. Even when his audience was all white, so be it, he'd play the hell out of it, no matter who was there. “I tell stories through my music,” he boasts. As he says near the end, he had “the luck.” He also possessed a talent uniquely his own, much like his story, a very special American one. If only there were more evidence of his sublime music making.
His style was unpredictable, sexy, show-offy, with unparalleled technique and finesse. With his sandpaper vocals and masterful performing skills, he raised American music into the empyrean. Armstrong, America's idol, whose life should be depicted in stereophonic sound, deserves better than Teachout's scratchy 78 rpm recording.
Satchmo at the Waldorf continues through March 18 at 7:30 Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26- $95.