Recommended **** I was absolutely fascinated watching Barry Shabaka Henley’s performance in the Court Theatre’s production of “Satchmo at the Waldorf”. Although I was certainly aware of Louis Armstrong as a performer, I knew very little about him as a person. Henley’s raspy-voiced portrayal made him real for me. I give “Satchmo at the Waldorf” 4 Spotlights.
In his dressing room after a 1971 performance at the Waldorf, Louis Armstrong lets it all hang out, talking about anything and everything. As he reminisced, he touched on topics as diverse as Bing Crosby and Civil Rights. In his program notes, playwright Terry Teachout says something to the effect that Armstrong swore like a trooper and knew how to hold a grudge. In fact, he was still holding a grudge against his long-time manager, Joe Glaser, even though Glaser had been dead since 1969.
The thing that made this a tour de force performance for Henley was the addition of Joe Glaser as the ‘villain’ of the piece. The transformation was amazing. His Satchmo had that famous gravelly voice while his Glaser had a perfect New York Jewish accent. An aside: there’s an odd factoid – Glaser had a New York accent when he was actually from Chicago.
Armstrong was angry and bitter about a lot of things, but particularly hurt that Glaser didn’t leave him any shares in the business which he’d helped Glaser start. He tossed out a comment that he’d known Bing Crosby 40 years, but was never invited to his house. He was angry about the way the black students in Little Rock had been treated. He said he’d scolded then President Eisenhower for his hands-off attitude toward integration. He was bitter because black audiences had abandoned him for rhythm and blues, but glad because he’d never lost his white audience, which is the reason he was able to play at the Waldorf.
“Satchmo at the Waldorf” runs through February 14th at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. Running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8:00; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00; Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets range from $45-$65. Parking is free in the garage next door to the theater (you’ll have to take a ticket, but the gate will be up when you leave). FYI (773) 753-4472 or www.courttheatre.org.
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