‘A Wonderful World’ offers great song and dance, but the telling of Louis Armstrong’s story needs some polish

Theatrical imagination comes up short in new musical boasting a dynamic, increasingly complex lead performance by James Monroe Iglehart.

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James Monroe Iglehart (center) stars as Louis Armstrong in “A Wonderful World.”

James Monroe Iglehart (center) stars as Louis Armstrong in “A Wonderful World.”

©Jeremy Dani

The world would be more wonderful with a great bio-jukebox musical about the wondrous Louis Armstrong. At moments, this attempt, “A Wonderful World,” puts forth qualities of what such a show could feel like, especially in the dynamic, vivacious, funny, increasingly complex lead performance of James Monroe Iglehart — famous for his Tony-winning turn as the genie in the Broadway version of “Aladdin.”

But this show needs to take many steps back and rethink its theatrical, and musical, way into this so genuinely extraordinary, so extraordinarily American life story.

This is an artist and entertainer who can barely be praised enough, whose sheer musicianship as a cornet/trumpet player and vocalist, along with his bigger-than-life charisma, won over audiences in clubs and speakeasies (including in 1920s Chicago), then on recordings, then radio, then Broadway stages, then film, then television, where he likely became one of the very first Black men invited happily into all of America’s living rooms.

‘A Wonderful World’

Untitled

When: To Oct. 29

Where: Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St.

Tickets: $35-$105

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission


Armstrong, or Satchmo or Pops if you prefer, wasn’t just there when Dixieland music morphed into jazz and swing and scat singing. He made much of that happen. And even decades later, his recording of “Hello Dolly” dethroned the Beatles from the top of the charts.

But the sweep of his story — from New Orleans early in the 20th century to world stages and mass media until he died in 1971 — can be hard to corral into a coherent, cohesive portrait. Given that nobody can do all this in some realistic way, you need to bring to the challenge a theatrical imagination. And at the core, that is simply missing. Pure and simple.

In this conception, Aurin Squire’s book tells the story through the perspectives of Armstrong’s four wives. Ouch. The choice leads to predictable scenes: meeting and wooing, marriage, problems/cheating, breakup. The unions match up with key stages — or “chapters,” according to the program — of Armstrong’s life, but when it gets to his near 40-year marriage to his last wife Lucille (Ta’Rea Campbell), the show slows to a crawl. It’s great that she provided him with a stable home life even as he kept touring, becoming perhaps America’s greatest brand ambassador. But sorry, that’s not a recipe for entertainment.

There are some positives that emerge from this. The choice creates roles for four women singers, and this show boasts excellent performances from Khalifa White (his first wife Daisy, a prostitute), Jennie Harney-Fleming (playing Lil Hardin, a musician and collaborator), Brennyn Lark (wife number 3 is all we really need to know) and Campbell. On the negative side, though, they’re forced to serve as narrators, which splits the perspective of the piece into fragments, and none of those fragments belong to Armstrong.

And although Iglehart is phenomenal, having him play Louis as a child getting his first horn keeps us from making an early connection with Armstrong as a kid and young man. Iglehart is the right Louis for a show composed in flashbacks, or for one that switches actors. The positive side: When he performs “You Rascal, You” (otherwise known as “I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead”) to the Memphis Police Department to get out of a marijuana charge, we get both a song working on multiple levels and the only real glimpse of Armstrong’s ability to take complete command of an audience.

More thinking needs to go into how to depict the innovation and virtuosity of Satchmo’s trumpet playing. Here, the choice is to have Iglehart go through the motions briefly and then get back to singing, but it simply isn’t enough. Armstrong spoke most eloquently through his horn. Addressing this requires a reconsideration of the theatrical world. There are lots of possibilities, the most obvious being to make it make sense for there to be separate singing and trumpeting Armstrongs. Or at least bring the backstage band on stage. It’s simply not acceptable to have a Satchmo bio-musical without onstage trumpet-playing.

Despite all this, the show has enough great music (although music rights obviously have been a challenge) to be fundamentally entertaining. The big dancing numbers, choreographed by Rickey Tripp, are solid and, thanks to director Christopher Renshaw and costume designer Toni-Leslie James, capture the passage of time. Then again, these highlights come early, with the second act reserved for more complex contemplations of Armstrong’s place in the most American of all issues: race.

A worthy topic, for sure. Perhaps it would have been a more interesting way into the story? Sure, you could argue Armstrong shouldn’t be defined by race. But then again, something tells me he wouldn’t want to be defined by his ex-wives.

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