Miami New Drama Tunes Up Debut Of Wonderful World — A Louis Armstrong Bio-Musical

Juson Williams as Louis Armstrong in Miami New Drama’s world premiere bio-musical A Wonderful World / Photos by Roberto Mata

By Bill Hirschman

Under the proscenium of the impossibly ornate Olympia Theatre in downtown Miami, Kareema Khouri is holding the last note of the classic “Body and Soul” with such emotional and aural power that it is bouncing off the back of the balcony seating without a microphone.

The moment is occurring in just one corner of a multi-tasking rehearsal for Miami New Drama’s epic world premiere A Wonderful World. In performance, Khouri, who is an ensemble member playing multiple parts, will likely be in the background of a scene in a club. But the cast, crew and creative team strewn across the bare stage and dressed against the air conditioning in sweaters and mufflers, stop dead to give her a passionate ovation.

It’s indicative of the energy and talent suffusing this musical charting the life of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, previewing March 5 and opening March 14.

The iconic trailblazer from the 1920s through the 1960s as trumpeter, composer, band leader, vocalist and actor has been examined and reexamined for decades in extensive biographies, esoteric treatises, a television movie and the play Satchmo at the Waldorf  by Terry Teachout.

A Wonderful World – named for his 1967 standard “What A Wonderful World” — is not a revue but a highly theatrical biography in which Armstrong’s famous numbers are infused as part of the plot or as character-revealing reveries.

Armstrong was far more complex than the genial stage persona he crafted and the show is not meant to be sanitized hagiography. Instead, it depicts only four of the major arcs in his multi-faceted life by having his four wives narrate his evolution from his hometown of New Orleans, through his professional breakout in Chicago, his status as a world-renowned icon in Hollywood and then his later years in New York City. Along the way, it parallels not just the cultural history of the time, but also the status of racism and civil rights.

A Wonderful World is arguably the most ambitious and inarguably the most expansive project taken on so far by the five-year-old company under artistic director Michel Hausmann.

The scope breaks ground for Miami New Drama: 18 cast members, seven live band members including a separate trumpeter to provide the range of Armstrong’s styles, a Tony-winning sound designer, a 60-foot-wide set, the team of Annastasia Victory and Michael O. Mitchell to give the period standards fresh arrangements and orchestrations, a cast of half New York-based and half-local actors, Carbonell-nominated Miami playwright and television screenwriter Aurin Squire (co-writer of the company’s Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy) and director Christopher Renshaw, who has lived here 12 years but has won awards for extensive work on the West End and New York.

A clear indicator is that Miami New Drama productions normally cost about $300,000, Hausmann said. This one will likely land around $1 million, with about half of that being “enhancement money,” meaning outside investors hope to cash in if this has “legs” after the immediate production.

Charting The Development

Miami friend Andrew Delaplaine mentioned Armstrong to Renshaw about a year and a half ago. In reading a biography, Renshaw noticed that much of Armstrong’s life played out alongside his relationship with the wives.

Renshaw recalled, “From about the age of 15, he was probably only unmarried about three weeks. The women who influenced him were completely different: a prostitute, a great musician, then (another woman), and then the wonderful homemaker, Lucille, who survived him. So that’s my way in. And then I got very excited.”

As a British transplant, “I had so much to learn about, especially about the problems of black women finding their way through that century to survive and their legacy to help people now. Now, I know things aren’t completely better, but they are somewhat better.”

Renshaw, who lives around the corner from the company’s base at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road, had become a fan of Miami New Drama since seeing its 2018 co-production with the Asolo Theatre of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, the satirical drama of race relations and pop culture seen through the prism of faux wrestling. Hausmann said the two became “drinking buddies” and he asked Renshaw to come to him with any ideas.

Meanwhile Hausmann had been working with Squire on Cocaine Cowboys and hooked him up with Renshaw to turn the director’s ideas into a story.

Hausmann, who has been outspoken in championing diverse voices that represent the majority of Miami culture, said, “Aurin is a great example of a Miami talent that lives and breathes Miami.  But it’s a different Miami than the one known by the white community.”

The collaboration took root early, Renshaw said. “Normally, musicals can take five to six years” from idea to production.  Squire is “a very good, wonderful writer, but he’s also quick. He doesn’t take forever and he doesn’t have a huge defense system. So he’s very open. So we were able to get something out pretty damn quick.”

Squire recalls the serendipity of the assignment: “I completely related to it because they didn’t know this, but I was the gig coordinator for the New School for Jazz…. I sort of immersed myself in jazz and a lot of the studies of the students were doing revolved around Louis Armstrong, and then going to more experimental like Sun Ra and later Miles Davis. And on that Christmas, I got a free gift from the Secret Santa in the office, which was a Louis Armstrong biography. So I went home and I read this massive biography and I was amazed and stunned by the richness of this person’s life.”

The challenge was to figure out what to use and what to leave out in the life of someone who travelled the world and had enough episodes to fill multiple mini-series, Squire said.

To a degree, his life paralleled the evolution of America in the 20th century including the ebb and flow of racism. “The things he’s encountering in these different cities,” Squire said. “The sort of racism you encounter in New Orleans is different than when he goes to the riverboat. And it is a lot different from urban Chicago racism and then white liberal white racism in Hollywood and then finally, New York (in which) you’re a commodity that people are using you like a product. It is modeling what a lot of black artists go through.”

Armstrong angrily challenged norms while keeping a beatific exterior for self-preservation’s sake as he played in the South. The actor and vaudevillian Stepin Fetchit advised him to “put on a shine for the white people.” Then later, he was criticized by another generation for being an accommodating sellout.

But a key scene being rehearsed today has Armstrong jailed in Memphis for having a white woman on his bus. He agrees to do a benefit concert for the police department during which he delivers a wickedly double-edged rendition of the rousing “Now I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal, you.”

Squire and Renshaw developed the idea of a stylistic play, not a naturalistic one. “It’s not going to be like a kitchen sink play. It is a mosaic of these different parts of his life because his life is too big to have a standard play,” Squire said.

Meanwhile, Renshaw had been working with Victory on another project in New York. So he enlisted her and her husband to tackle the music, including developing underscoring for the dialogue scenes, similar to a film.

Last August, the company did a two-week workshop and readings with several of the actors who would later be cast in the production. Some rehearsals were held with the New York-based cast members in January.

When the entire cast was to begin working locally, they had to hunt up rehearsal space. The Colony has none. So the singers and dancers and musicians began working out in separate studios inside the new Sandrell Rivers Theater in North Miami, the current home of M Ensemble and Fantasy Theater Factory. Eventually needing a 60-foot wide area to represent the entire set, the company had difficulty finding an unused space. It finally settled on the Olympia, which has a reputation for being woefully underused.

With local production companies busy building sets for the Super Bowl, Miami New Drama hired a firm in the New York area. That multi-leveled environment was being loaded onto the Colony stage on the day of these rehearsals. Elsewhere the full band was rehearsing at another location.

While the Colony has its own sound system, another Renshaw “mate,” Tony-winning sound designer Kai Harada, deemed that a better system was needed and the company rented a far more sophisticated system.

So on this rehearsal day in mid-February, Renshaw is working dialogue scenes in one section of the stage, choreographer Ricky Tripp is drilling ensemble dancers a few yards away, and, across the stage, music director Mitchell is playing an electric piano to mold actresses playing Armstrong’s first two wives singing “After You’ve Gone.” All are pieces that will be melded for the last scenes in the first act.

Playing Armstrong

The most high-profile linchpin in the equation is Juson Williams, an unusually affable and ebullient actor who while simply being himself in an interview looks very little like Armstrong nor sounds like him.

No one expects nor even wants him to create a nightclub impressionist’s summoning of a voice and vision to compete with ingrained memories in the audience’s mind. But when he rehearses, so many of Armstrong’s mannerisms emerge down to a shake of his head, a huge smile and unique vocal characteristics in a transformation.

Research has been key for him, reading a seminal biography “An Extravagant Life” and studying online clips. He recalls “I did watch videos to get his facial expression right, (how his) eyes light and (the voice) ‘Yeah, babies’ ”

He connected immediately with the icon’s core as he discovered personal resonances with multiple aspects of Armstrong’s life.  “It’s so crazy. Like it pertains to my life. I lost both my parents when I was eleven. He really did how he grow up on his own….  He had so much loss, so much hurt, so much damage in his life. You know, I haven’t been as poor as him, but I relate to a lot to his soul.”

But interviewed on this day about two weeks from opening, he fretted that he was still working hard to nail the part. A few minutes earlier, he was running scenes where he would call out for a line cue. “Once I get these lines down, I will really find my intentions” for the character. Although he has been involved since the earliest readings and workshop, the script seems to be fine-tuned daily.

“I’m just critical of myself like this, you know, because I’m trying to find it and I’m trying to find where we move and I’m trying to find how these lines are intertwined, the continuity of all of it.”

Another challenge for Williams is tracking Armstrong over the decades of his life, as his musical style evolved and even his voice changed from a relatively normal timbre to the gravely rasp most people recall.

Of course, there’s the issue of actually playing the trumpet. Williams doesn’t. “However, I picked up a trumpet and put it in my mouth and I blew out some notes. Not the greatest, but I did it.” Instead, he studied the fingering and how to hold the instrument while playing it, almost a choreographic effort “because there will be some instrumentalists in the audience who will be like ‘What are you doing? You can’t hold it like that.’ “Another performer visible on stage will play the trumpet live while Williams mimes the moves.

The wives are portrayed by Dionne Figgins as Daisy Parker, Lana Gordon (a Velma in Chicago on Broadway) as Lil Harden, Nicole Henry (the University of Miami grad who has made an international reputation as a vocalist) as Alpha Smith, and Darlene Hope as Lucille Wilson.

The cast also includes Gavin Gregory as early jazz great King Joe Oliver, local actor Stephen G. Anthony as longtime manager Joe Glaser, DeWitt Fleming Jr. as Stepin’ Fetchit, and Michael McKeever as Johnny Collins, an early manager. Additional cast includes Lindsey Corey, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Kareema Khouri, Khadijah Rolle, Traci Elaine Lee, James A. Pierce III, Ben Sandomir, Dori Waymer, Shanna L. Woods, and trumpeter Yamin Mustafa.

It’s all a major undertaking, even for the intrepid Miami New Drama.

“That’s what we do. We take risks, period,” Hausmann said as Renshaw melded the disparate pieces visible in the last hour into a single narrative flow.

“But we’ve been training our audiences. I think that our audience is always used to seeing us do something different. I don’t think that you can ever say, oh, it’s a Miami New Drama (piece).”

If nothing else, it’s a major moment in Williams’ life to tell Armstrong’s story

He describes how renditions of the title song at the end of the show during workshops “every time we did it that brought me to tears because it’s like I carried all these souls on my back…. This is my chance to tell this story and in a beautiful way to play an icon that I never thought I would play.”

A Wonderful World from Miami New Drama, previews beginning March 5, opening night is March 14 and the show runs through April 5  at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Shows 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets $39-$65. Visit miaminewdrama.org or https://www.colonymb.org

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