The final dress rehearsal for the first preview of the Court Theatre’s production of Satchmo at the Waldorf took place in Chicago last Thursday night…and I wasn’t there. I was in Florida, reviewing another show. Granted, I flew up three days later, but it still felt strange to be somewhere else on Thursday. I was, after all, intimately involved in the rehearsal process for all six of the show’s previous productions, and I spent two very intense weeks working on Satchmo in Chicago last month.
From here on out, though, my presence will be strictly optional. I’m flying to San Francisco next Monday to open American Conservatory Theatre’s staging of Satchmo, but that one is a straight remounting of the 2014 off-Broadway version. I don’t need to help with rehearsals: I’ll be there strictly to publicize the production, and when it transfers to Colorado Springs in February, I won’t be going with it. Indeed, I won’t even be seeing Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s all-new production, which opens in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on January 22. All I’ll get to do is read about it.
Why am I not traveling to Colorado Springs and Portsmouth to see Satchmo? Because I have a day job, one that requires me to see shows in New York and all over the country, then review them each Friday in The Wall Street Journal. I was able to take two full weeks off to rehearse in Chicago solely because of the peculiarities of the 2015 calendar (the Journal doesn’t publish on Christmas or New Year’s Day, both of which fell on a Friday this past year). In order to shoehorn the Chicago and San Francisco productions into my calendar while simultaneously covering Broadway openings in January, I’ll have to spend the next couple of weeks doing an inordinate amount of cross-country flying. After that, though, it’s back to business.
Fortunately for me, I love the “business” of being a drama critic, so none of this is to be construed as a complaint. Nor do I care to be away from Mrs. T for longer than absolutely necessary, much less to stash her on the Gulf of Mexico for eleven days while I bounce around the colder parts of America.
The real problem, I think, is that I can’t quite grasp that Satchmo has—and, I hope, will continue to have—a life without me. Yes, I did my best to be helpful to Charlie Newell and Barry Shabaka Henley, the director and star of the Court Theater’s production of Satchmo, but I know that the Court could have produced the show perfectly well had I stayed home. Once we opened in New York in 2014 and I signed off on the published version of the text, my job was done. For better or worse, Satchmo at the Waldorf is now on its own.
The truth is that I went to Chicago mostly to watch Charlie work. As regular readers of this space know, I’m staging my own production of Satchmo at the Waldorf in West Palm Beach later this year. It’ll be my professional directing debut, and the more I learn about the process before waltzing into the rehearsal hall in April, the more smoothly things will go. I can’t think of a better way to learn than to watch Charlie, just as I watched Rus Blackwell and Gordon Edelstein when Satchmo was first produced in Orlando and Lenox.
I won’t deny, though, that I also went to Chicago just for the fun of it. My three operatic collaborations with Paul Moravec taught me that there are few things in the world more purely pleasurable than rehearsing a show, and having finally gotten around to writing a play on the eve of my late middle age, I’m well aware that I won’t get anything remotely approaching an unlimited number of opportunities to repeat the experience. That being the case, I figure I’d better squeeze all the juice I can out of this one. Nobody has to tell me that the clock is running.
So I’m flying from Chicago to New York on Wednesday, from New York to Chicago on Thursday, from Chicago to San Francisco next Monday, and from San Francisco back to Sanibel Island next Thursday. That part won’t be even slightly fun—but what happens in between will be worth it.
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Barry Shabaka Henley, the star of the Court Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf, talks about his belated discovery of Louis Armstrong: