Chicago Theatre Review
Hello, Louis – Court’s ‘Satchmo’ Play Utter Perfection
Satchmo At the Waldorf- Court Theatre
Over the decades, Louis Armstrong has become one of those unfortunate artists whose fame overshadows their genius. Sure, songs such as “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly” are fixtures in the popular music lexicon, while his lovably raspy vocals, stage mannerisms, and 100-mega-watt smile are pop culture staples.
Those images and cliches, however, only tell a small fraction of the transformative, even revolutionary figure Armstrong actually was, and for that reason, I cannot heap enough adjectives upon Court Theatre’s production of Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a one-man show that simultaneously brings Armstrong to life and educates its audience on what made Satchmo such a remarkable figure.
The setting is the Waldorf Astoria, 1971, and the aging Armstrong has just finished a set at the hotel’s legendary Empire Room. He is tired, deflated, kneeling on the floor and taking deep breaths from an oxygen tank. As soon as he collects himself, however, he begins addressing the audience in colorful, wonderfully expletive-ridden language – telling stories about his musical roots in New Orleans; about the seedy nature of Storyville, the “red light district” where he grew up (and where prostitution, his mother’s occupation, was legal); about his uncomfortable realizations on race relations in America; on his unique friendship with Joe Glaser, his long-time manager; and about his musical genius, how his virtuosity on the trumpet and exhilarating improvisational abilities literally redefined not only jazz music, but the entire trajectory of American popular music.
And holding all those elements together is Barry Shabaka Henley, who is a hypnotizing presence on Court’s impeccably produced stage. A veteran actor of the large and small screens (many will recall his memorable supporting turn in the Jamie Foxx/Tom Cruise film “Collateral”), Henley is astounding to behold, charming and loquacious one moment, violently angry and indignant the next – and he’s not only playing Armstrong. Additionally, Henley portrays Glaser and, in the play’s funniest moments, Miles Davis. The alternating narratives are key – we’re not only granted additional perspectives on Armstrong’s art and demeanor (Davis’ observations on Satchmo’s stage presence are particularly incendiary), but the play also challenges the authority of Armstrong’s own biases and perspectives. “Satchmo” is hardly a hit piece, but it offers the 360-degree examination that is often gapingly absent from biographical plays and movies.
And as always, Court’s technical achievements are unsurpassed, the very finest Chicago theater has to offer. Charles Newell’s direction is deep and varies, with props and multiple points of reference that keep the audience engaged; John Culbert’s scenic design is spare, granting Henley absolute attention; and Keith Parham’s lighting is every bit as virtuosic as Armstrong’s playing, utilizing unexpected angles and shades that create some of the more striking images I’ve seen.
The 2016 theater season is still in its infancy, but it will be a tall order producing a play finer than what Court is currently featuring on its stage.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Feb. 7 by Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Tickets are available by calling 773-753-4472 or by visiting http://www.courttheatre.org/.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.