Actor James Monroe Iglehart, due in part to a combination of botched surgeries and a prolonged cold, dives deeper into his role as American musician Louis Daniel Armstrong, famous for his horn-blowing skills and unique baritone voice as well as for his seemingly exuberant personality. a New Orleans steamer.
Iglehart gives a stellar performance in Christopher Renshaw’s new musical “A Wonderful World,” which debuts Friday night at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, with Broadway dreams and producers including Vanessa Williams. His Tony Award win for “Aladdin” is a testament to Iglehart’s improvisational skills and charisma on stage, but that’s not all he does here. Armstrong, who dominated American show business throughout the 20th century, clearly sensed that he had to play multiple characters, and that his chaotic personal life (four wives, hundreds of affairs) hinted at an undercurrent of deep pain. If you’ll forgive the oversimplification, Iglehart’s talents are comparable to those of Nathan Lane.
I hope Broadway can see Iglehart do Satchmo and the rest of this extremely talented company. But right now their offering is overly long, cumbersome and stifled by a simple book (to be honest), squandering the potential musical riches of the show that audiences have come to hear.
Its problems include unnecessary exposition (“And then the stock market crashed…”) that doesn’t allow players to sit with their characters’ dramatic emotions. Valuable time is wasted telling us things like Los Angeles is “the perfect place for Louis to get into movies” when the Hollywood sign in the background does the job just fine. There are also mistakes; someone mentions that Michigan is west of Chicago.
What needs to happen here is a retooling of the show to highlight the conflicts a black musician faced in Armstrong’s time (you can read much of this in Terry Teachout’s late work, “Pops”). It’s all there in the man’s life: the clash of authenticity and commercialism, the outright theft of Black musicians’ rightful income, the increasing exploitation of once-Black New Orleans music, the presence of shady gangsters. And most pertinent here was how Armstrong always had to reconcile his private “hustle” with that of a professional, smiling, all-white man, with the things he felt inside and wanted to blow his horn.
Right now, the show’s best scene takes place between Armstrong and Lincoln Perry, aka actor and vaudevillian Stepin Fetchit; Here two men talk about what they’re doing, then touch and play. DeWitt Fleming Jr. is the great hitter who plays Perry. She is woefully underutilized in the series, which is organized around the narrative of Armstrong’s four wives: Daisy Parker (Khalifa White), Lil Hardin (Jennie Harney-Fleming), Lucille Wilson (Ta’Rea Campbell), and Alpha Smith (Brennyn Lark). All four of these actors are terrific, but it would be even better if their characters dropped all the narrative work and helped us explore Armstrong’s struggles with loyalty and love. Sometimes it’s hard for Armstrong to come out strong in his own show.
The other weird thing here is that we don’t see much of Armstrong with other musicians; many people remember him; He was playing with a great band like Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band; 1920s at the famous Lincoln Gardens on E. 31st St. Considering who was starring in this show and the quality of Rickey Tripp’s choreography, I kept waiting for the big scene with Iglehart’s Armstrong. performanceHe jokes with the band, sings many more songs than the hundreds of songs he has recorded, and introduces them to the audience. Definitely a pleasure. But it never came, or at least not fully. Instead we are treated to scene after scene of letters, receipts and family arguments. This is not what you want in Act 2 of the Louis Armstrong show.
The biographical details that can be found in many jukebox shows about musicians often follow the same narrative arc, given how history teaches us that years of being on the road take their toll on a person and everyone who loves them. What this particular show needs is to explore the essence of one of the most fascinating and complex figures in American jazz, a man so touched by the complexity of his country that he got into trouble for his complicity with some Black Americans and some whites. just because you’re Black. And yet who kept playing and smiling the whole way.
What kind of show could this be? Even now, Iglehart is a revelation to Armstrong fans.
Get the latest news and reviews from America’s most popular theater city delivered weekly to your inbox.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “It’s a Wonderful World” (3 stars)
When: Until October 29
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph St.
Working time: 3 hours
Tickets: $35-$105 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com