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Terry Teachout's play about Louis Armstrong reveals the man behind the smile

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Satchmo at the Waldorf

7:30 p.m. Thursday through Oct. 2
Orlando Shakespeare Theater
812 E. Rollins St.

Maybe the moniker “Satchmo” is one you’ve heard. If you’re a fan of the old black-and-white movie musicals, have seen clips from television’s early days or have any interest in jazz or American popular music, you probably know who Louis Armstrong is. You have a mental picture of a broadly smiling, wide-eyed African-American man, stout but debonair, blasting powerful notes on his trumpet, trading quips with Bing Crosby or Ed Sullivan, or perhaps singing “Hello, Dolly” in a voice that sounds like sandpaper rubbing against a human larynx. But if that’s all you know about one of America’s great musical geniuses, you still have much to learn.

Satchmo at the Waldorf, a new play by author and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout based on his biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, intends to flesh out the details of Armstrong’s long and productive musical life and, according to Teachout, “reveal the man behind the smile.”

The one-man, two-character show will have its world premiere this week at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. Dennis Neal stars as Louis Armstrong and also as his longtime manager and protector, Joe Glaser, with whom Armstrong had a successful, if fractious, 40-year professional relationship. Well-known Orlando actor and director Rus Blackwell, who has worked with Neal for many years and, with Neal, was one of the founders of the Mad Cow Theatre Company, directs the play.

The coming together of these three talented theater pros was a fortuitous event that Neal opines was destined to occur. According to the highly regarded local performer, “Rus and I had been thinking about doing some sort of one-man show for a long time, but it never came together. When I read Terry’s script, I knew I was born to play this part. I almost felt that it had been written for me.”

Apparently, Teachout did as well. The peripatetic writer, lecturer, librettist and former jazz musician met Neal earlier this year when Teachout touched down in the area as a scholar-in-residence at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. He had written a preliminary draft of the play – his first – after an acquaintance suggested that he use his recently published book as a jumping-off point for a further examination of the conflict between the public’s beloved “Satchmo” and the private Armstrong.

Neal was asked to portray Satchmo in a staged reading of the work, and Teachout, who had been looking for a black actor to play the part should he ever wish to produce the work on a larger scale, was sold after witnessing Neal’s performance. Neal brought his old colleague Blackwell to the table and the three agreed to stage a fully mounted premiere here in Orlando. Neal and Blackwell have bought the rights to present the play in three more venues in the Southeast, and after that – wherever destiny takes them.

And it does seem as if destiny has played a part in this venture. Both Armstrong and Blackwell hail from the Deep South – Armstrong was born in New Orleans and Blackwell grew up in Pass Christian, Miss., just miles from the Big Easy; Neal grew up in Harlem, where African-American artists like Armstrong created a national artistic renaissance. Blackwell’s father was a professional singer, as was Neal’s mother and his stepfather, Jesse Stone – who not only wrote the standard “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” but who actually knew Armstrong in his younger days. All of these interesting intersections have convinced Neal that this is, in fact, the role of his lifetime.

Teachout insists that his play is a work of fiction and that its language is his alone – not a staged version of his book. It is, however, based on the facts of Armstrong’s life, as well as some 650 reel-to-reel tapes that Armstrong recorded over many years and which are now housed in the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. During the course of Teachout’s biographical research, he had unlimited access to the material. So while the book is a scholarly treatise written in the author’s voice, the play mirrors the actual thoughts, words and inflections that Teachout imbibed from endless hours spent listening to Armstrong’s own autobiographical musings.

Neal also takes pains to point out that his performance in Satchmo at the Waldorf is not an impersonation of the great musician. There is no trumpet playing in the script, and Neal will not be crooning “Hello, Dolly.”

“This play is not an imitation. We’re going for the essence of the man.”

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