In the many creative ways theaters have adjusted to the pandemic, one-man shows are a safe bet — especially when the performance is presented virtually.
But one actor playing three larger-than-life characters takes the experience up a notch.
In American Stage’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, actor L. Peter Callender portrays legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, his manager, Joe Glaser, and fellow jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
Written by Terry Teachout, it will be streamed on American Stage’s “virtual stage” Feb. 19-28.
Set in a dressing room backstage at the Empire Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1971, just months before Armstrong died, the play reads like his memoir. Armstrong, known affectionately as “Satchmo,” talks into a tape recorder, recounting his life and work.
He seeks to come to terms with his long-standing relationship with Glaser, whom he saw as a father figure, but believes to have betrayed him.
Davis admires Armstrong’s playing but is critical of his onstage manner. He thought Armstrong excessively played up to white audiences.
This is the first one-man show for Callender, a seasoned actor who has worked with American Stage for six seasons. He lives in California, where he is the artistic director for the African-American Shakespeare Company.
But instead of acting on a stage in a theater, Callender is performing in a pre-recorded production filmed in an apartment next to American Stage’s actor housing, where he is staying. All cameras are remotely operated and Callender has been running lines by himself.
Director Ted Lange, who played Isaac on The Love Boat, is also directing remotely.
Callender said it’s been an odd experience, acting alone without an audience.
“It’s so important to get that feedback,” he said. “That’s the hard part.”
His approach to mastering the three characters is a “journey” in which he has to know his “path and then forget it.”
While the playwright’s instructions were to not imitate the characters, Callender differentiates them by the tone of their voices.
He describes Glaser as a tough-talking guy who speaks in a clipped, nasally tone. Davis had a raspy whisper that makes the listener lean in and used a lot of profanity.
“Satchmo’s voice makes you sit back and smile,” Callender said. He emulates Armstrong’s rich, gravelly voice.
The play is full of interesting facts about Armstrong’s life, Callender said. For instance, he despised being called “Louie,” because it’s the French pronunciation used by the Creole, light-skinned Black people of New Orleans, who looked down on darker-skinned Black people.
Armstrong would accentuate the “s” of his first name and say, “I’m not Louie. I’m not French, I’m Black.”
The play also details the racism and discrimination Armstrong faced, despite being a beloved entertainer throughout the world.
Another revelation in the play is that Armstrong would use a handkerchief to cover his hands to prevent other musicians from stealing his notes.
Callender will not play the trumpet in the play, which he said was “kind” of the playwright to not expect of the actor. He bought a trumpet to practice holding to emulate Armstrong.
But fans can expect to hear the Armstrong favorites West End Blues and What a Wonderful World during the production.
Callender said it was an honor to play Armstrong. He loves working with American Stage and called the team “phenomenal.”
“The passion for theater is rife in that place,” he said.
If you “go”
Satchmo at the Waldorf runs Feb. 19-28. $15. The virtual production can be accessed via americanstage.org. Guests can call 727-823-7529 for assistance getting the streamed performance.