In the early nineties, I saw Robert Morse in “Tru,” his Tony-winning portrayal of Truman Capote. I remember it being magnificent, but I mostly remember a song played in the show, Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build A Dream On.” A beautiful love song, but somehow infused with melancholy, I’d never heard it before, and I’ve never stopped hearing it in my head since.
That’s the essence of Armstrong; he completely filled the world he lived in. He was a one-of-a-kind singer, in the unique grain of his voice and especially in his mastery of it as a musical instrument, yet it was only his second-best instrument. His real virtuosity was as a trumpet player, perhaps the greatest of all time. But it was his life as a cultural star, whose story tracks big movements of the twentieth century—the birth of jazz in New Orleans, the Great Migration to Chicago, the rise of Hollywood, and finally the civil-rights movement—that made him the perfect subject for a Broadway-bound musical. Otherwise, he might have ended up like his mentor, the cornet player and band leader King Joe Oliver (Gavin Gregory), also one of the all-time greats. Oliver finished his life in abject poverty, pushing a fruit cart in Savannah to stay alive, as depicted in one of the more heartbreaking scenes of “A Wonderful World,” the new musical in its pre-Broadway premiere at the Cadillac Palace, which does not sugarcoat the horrors of the Black American experience in Armstrong’s lifetime.
Needless to say, a bio-play about Louis Armstrong soars or sinks with the casting of the lead, and Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart rises to the occasion, not only mastering the gravelly voice and scat singing that were Armstrong’s signatures, but also fully manifesting the physical presence and infectious charisma and smile that made him a star.
With a book by Aurin Squire, direction by co-creator Christopher Renshaw and choreography by Rickey Tripp, when Armstrong, his musical cohorts and the ensemble are on stage in a song-and-dance performance, “A Wonderful Life” is absolutely captivating. A scene with Lincoln Perry in Hollywood, aka Stepin Fetchit, the “Laziest Man in the World,” is especially powerful. Perry gives Armstrong the life-changing advice that will push the jazz singer from the back of the stage with the band to front-and-center on camera. In doing so, Armstrong will have to wear his smile as a mask, in the same way Perry and other Black entertainers had to disguise themselves to thrive in the white world. Turns out Perry was the antithesis of Stepin Fetchit—smart, thoughtful and, as played in this show by DeWitt Fleming, Jr., one helluva tap dancer.
That being said, the show needs some finessing before it’s ready for the Broadway spotlight. Subtitled “A New Musical About the Life and Loves of Louis Armstrong,” it’s structured around his four wives, who neatly align with the four cities in which he developed his career: New Orleans (Daisy Parker played by Khalifa White), Chicago (Lil Hardin played by Jennie Harney-Fleming), Los Angeles (Alpha Smith, played by Brennyn Lark), and finally New York (Lucille Wilson, played by Ta’Rea Campbell). Each wife is an extraordinary singer, and each is given a bluesy number to belt out, though none of them get a song to remember, a show-stopper to establish emotional rivalry with their husband. That’s the core problem with the show right now: we don’t get to know the wives well enough to care about them. Armstrong seems driven more by lust than love, and each wife is reduced to singing about frustration with his philandering and his inability to stop “scratching the itch” of life on the road as a performer. His wives ranged from former prostitutes to musicians in their own right; I bet they were interesting. But the show’s already too long at two-hours-forty-minutes (including intermission), and seems to need a few cuts and some focus on its pacing, so there’s no room for the development of four characters in full.
And, truthfully, none of the people who surround the likes of Armstrong ever shine in their presence anyway. We all know about Travis Kelce right now, but who can name Taylor Swift’s last boyfriend, and who cares? That suggests the larger challenge when depicting an icon; that is, finding the essence of their humanity, seeing them as more than just a symbol. It’s what Orson Welles did with “Citizen Kane” and the Rosebud motif, and here it’s hinted at—Armstrong just wants “home.” For him, home means New Orleans, perhaps, as evidenced by his obsession with red beans and rice and the way his song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” is used. Or maybe it means a house with a wife in the kitchen and children in the yard, which is also suggested here. But as tidy—and stereotypical—as either would be thematically, it’s not enough to capture Armstrong and his restless ambition.
In David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Killer BOB’s psychosis plays out against his love for Armstrong’s song, “What A Wonderful World.” Lynch sensed the sorrow lurking in the voice, even as Armstrong sang the sunniest song ever. In “A Wonderful World,” we see the clouds around the singer’s perpetual silver lining when moments of racial oppression present themselves throughout the show. Maybe that’s the story that’s trying to be told—that Armstrong was America incarnate; relentlessly optimistic but burdened by a tortured spirit borne of its sins.
But Broadway wants the American dream, not its nightmares.
“A Wonderful World” at the Cadillac Palace, 151 West Randolph, through October 29.