In his one-man show A Tuff Shuffle: Backstage with Louis Armstrong, Charlotte, NC playwright and performer Danny Mullen invites Theater of the American South patrons behind the scenes into the dressing room of legendary jazz cornet and trumpet player and globe-traveling singer and songwriter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong(1901-71), a.k.a. “Pops” and “Ambassador Satch,” for one of Armstrong’s famous post-concert confabs.
On tap is home-made gumbo, cooked up by Armstrong himself on his dressing-room hotplate, and an intimate but wide-ranging and remarkably frank and fearless PG-13-rated autobiographical monologue, punctuated with brief but bracing reprises of Armstrong’s greatest (vocal) hits, such as “Moon River”; “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”; “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?”; “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”; “C’Est Si Bon“; “Someday You Will Be Sorry”; “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You”; “What a Wonderful World”; and “Hello, Dolly!” — which won the proud New Orleans native the 1964 Grammy Award for Male Vocal Performance.
Mullen’s charismatic characterization of Armstrong is a real crowd pleaser. He is completely convincing in conversation and on Armstrong’s gravelly vocals, but Mullen is a little less persuasive when he is fingering Satchmo’s trademark trumpet. Born the grandson of slaves, into a very poor family in an impoverished section of New Orleans — the birthplace of jazz — and abandoned by his father when he was an infant, Armstrong watched his destitute mother turn to prostitution to feed her children. So, he grew up singing on street corners, delivering papers, and collecting and reselling coal — anything to make a dollar.
A fortunate encounter with a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family named the Karnofskys, who hired young Louis to work on their junk wagon, helped the aspiring musician acquire the tools of his trade. After saving up enough money to buy his first cornet, Armstrong was soon playing in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. He later followed his mentor and surrogate father Joe “King” Oliver to Chicago, then left Oliver to play in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York City before forming his own bands. Along the way, Satchmo — which is short for “Satchelmouth” — made jazz history with his blazing and heretofore unprecedented cornet and trumpet solos and his raspy singing, which was much imitated.
Dramatist Danny Mullen eschews chronological order to present the high points and low points of Armstrong’s life thematically, but he keeps the onlookers’ rapt attention for the entire journey. Publicly denigrated as an Uncle Tom by other African-Americans, who criticized him for kowtowing to white society, Armstrong worked quietly behind the scenes for Civil Rights until 1957 when he cancelled a U.S. State Department good-will tour of the U.S.S.R. and took a very public stand that forced President Eisenhower to send in federal troops to integrate the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas — three years after Brown v. Education became the law of the land.
Like the incomparable singer, songwriter, and horn player extraordinaire Louis Armstrong before him, last Saturday afternoon Danny Mullen brought the Theater of the American to its feet at the end of his virtuoso performance of A Tuff Shuffle; and also like the great Satchmo, Mullen left his new-found fans cheering for more. Bravo!
SECOND OPINION: May 16th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 2 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/theater-of-the-american-souths-backstage-with-louis-armstrong/Content?oid=3068988. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the May 10th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/05/tas-2012-season-includes-a-streetcar-named-desire-and-a-solo-about-louis-armstrong/.)
Theater of the American South presents A TUFF SHUFFLE: BACKSTAGE WITH LOUIS ARMSTRONG, written and performed by Danny Mullen, at 8 p.m. May 19, 8 p.m., 2 p.m. May 20, 8 p.m. May 25, 2 p.m. May 26, and 7:30 p.m. May 27 in the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre at Barton College, 700 Vance Street NE, Wilson, North Carolina 27893.
TICKETS: $20 ($18 students and seniors 60+), and group rates are available.
BOX OFFICE: 252-291-4329, ext. 10, or http://www.etix.com/.
INFORMATION: 919-783-9671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ASSOCIATED EVENTS: http://www.theateroftheamericansouth.org/events.html.
DIRECTIONS: http://www.barton.edu/geninfo/map.htm (map/directions to Barton College).
Danny Mullen: http://www.dannymullen.com/ (official website).
Louis Armstrong: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Armstrong (Wikipedia) and http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/ (Louis Armstrong House Museum).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.