Bubbling under the clever monologues in "Satchmo at the Waldorf, and occasionally rising to the surface lurks a time-honored question of the arts, Is giving people what they want successfully entertaining them or selling out?
In Terry Teachout's new play, jazz legend Louis Armstrong knows his answer: Giving people what they want is how you earn the all-important applause.
The fact that Armstrong and Glaser, the only characters in the show, fundamentally agree — and got along for nearly all their lives — doesn't leave room for much conflict. So the play percolates along on Armstrong's optimism and Glaser's pragmatism without hitting the emotional high notes that Armstrong's famed trumpet could.
First-time playwright Teachout has an ear for speech patterns and creates an engrossing characterization of Louis Armstrong and, to a lesser extent, his longtime manager Joe Glaser.
A prolific blogger and drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, Teachout is also a master storyteller, so Armstrong and Glaser entertainingly spin yarns about touring the segregated South, wheeling and dealing with Al Capone and the first time Armstrong realized how popular "Hello, Dolly!" was going to be.
But the inherent conundrum in "Satchmo at the Waldorf" lies in how the stories both illuminate the characters, yet sap momentum from the play's dramatic arc. Conflict arises late in the second act, but even then it is quickly resolved for the audience if not Armstrong.
Luckily, actor Dennis Neal has the right twinklingly devilish stage presence to keep the audience engaged, even when Armstrong's tales start to meander or repeat themselves.
Neal plays both characters. A simple lighting design — reds and ambers for Armstrong, blues for Glaser — indicates transitions, but under the direction of Rus Blackwell every switch is obvious in Neal's demeanor and posture.
Armstrong is an old man — we see him just months before his death — and Neal hobbles a bit, struggling to change into his performance clothes. But when he lets an expletive-laced zinger fly (and the show is full of expletives), his eyes dance, his mouth crinkles into a smile and a raspy chuckle spills out.
Neal's Glaser is bolder, more vigorous, quicker on his feet, his speech more direct. He doesn't chuckle, he bellows. All that adds up to a colder feeling, the contrast to the warmth Neal imbues in Armstrong emphasized by the instantaneous changes between the characters.
Blackwell carefully walks the fine line of keeping enough activity to avoid static monologues but not inserting so much stage business as to be distracting. And if the climactic revelation doesn't quite pack the shock value it could, well, like many a jazz song the destination isn't the important thing. It's the journey that's entertaining.
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•What: 'Satchmo at the Waldorf,' by Terry Teachout
•Length: 2 hours including intermission
•When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 2
•Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
•Tickets: $20; $16 students and seniors