THE SATCHMO’ SUITE
Eastern Front Theatre’s jazz musical The Satchmo’ Suite was warmly received by the VECC audience on the opening night of its western Canadian tour. It is a heart-warmer by design, a loving tribute to the loveable Louis Armstrong. The plot, the banter between the characters, and the impersonations come off a little too pat, but the play has plenty of charm and some bright highlights.
Andrew Moodie plays Hubert Clements, an anxious and brooding classical cellist who—short hours before his first leading performance—keeps tripping over a passage of his notes. He is too irritated by his mistakes, too reverent of Bach’s music, and too angered and humiliated by the racist insults of his orchestra conductor (being called Satchmo!) to be able to play through the passage. Enter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (painstakingly reproduced onstage by Jeremiah Sparks). Louis, a gravelly-voiced jazz genie, slowly coaxes Hubert into releasing all ofhis life’s bottled-up frustrations. He treats Hubert’s cellist’s block with Satchmo’ psycho-therapy, urging him: forget the master composer and play for yourself. Forget colour. Remember where you came from. Loosen up. Play your truth. And finally Hubert does.
A motif of mirroring runs through the play. Hubert conjures Louis by mimicking the Armstrong eye-roll in his hotel-room mirror. Louis’s lines often riff on Hubert’s. (Hubert: My paradise…is lost. Louis: Paradise lost? I can relate to that!)The original jazz score reflects Armstrong’s musical era. The actors mime their cello- and trumpet-playing, replicating the motions of musicians who sit half-shadowed at the edges of the stage. (Frequently this is so successful that the actors’ gestures seem to become the mesmerizing source of the music. And Sparks and Moodie sing well in their own rights, each actor’s voice excellently animating his character.) In one very nice scene, Louis tells how, during his apprenticeship to “King” Oliver, he respectfully followed the man’s solo fingering until Oliver concealed his fingers beneath his handkerchief, forcing young Louis to improvise. Placing a handkerchief over his own fingers, Louis alternately impersonates Oliver and his own younger self, all the while standing beside musician Derry Byrne who is ventriloquising cheeky trumpet for the two of them. Finally, Sparks’s performance as Armstrong is a mirror-image so remarkably faithful that I sometimes wished he would unbutton his jacket and improvise a little—it’s difficult to swing when you’re composing your face.
The live music adds warmth and pep to the play. Byrne plays admirably, as does his companion, pianist John Gilbert. Cellist Colin Matthews’s rendering of Bach’s Prelude nicely supports the passion playing across Hubert’s face when he finally performs his piece.
There is a wonderful moment when Hubert walks out to take his orchestra chair for this final performance. The musicians around him create the sounds of other orchestra members warming up, tuning their instruments. There is a wash of unstructured sound, full of dissonances and unexpected harmonies. The sounds around him are full of the promise of music yet unplayed. The Satchmo’ Suite could have benefited from a little more of just this kind of untidy excitement.