A pair of jazz icons are being portrayed in one-actor plays based on true events near the ends of their lives - Billie Holiday in Lady at Emerson's Bar and Grill at Circle in the Square and Louis Armstrong in Satchmo at the Waldorf at the Westside Theatre. The difference is that Billie is playing for seven customers at a dive in South Philadelphia, just months before her death at 44, while Louis is performing for an appreciative audience at the Waldorf-Astoria and even staying at the hotel.
We see Billie, portrayed by Audra MacDonald, onstage, worse for wear due to drug addiction and dependence on alcohol. She's bitter that she can't play in NYC nightclubs, since as a felon who's served prison time she's lost her cabaret card. As she tells rambling tales of her life, she gets prodded into singing some of her signature songs ("What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "God Bless the Child," etc.) by the ever-patient leader of her trio.
When she sings, "Strange Fruit," you can hear a pin drop. As soon as she's finished, she rushes offstage, returning a few minutes later in a heroin-induced haze. She's a proud and tragic figure, and Audra has both the acting skills and vocal chops, really channeling Billie's voice, to pull it off. (She also looks a whole lot more like Billie than Diana Ross ever did.) Already a five-time Tony winner, Audra definitely deserves her Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. (Kelli O'Hara, Idina Menzel, Marrin Mazzie, and Jessie Mueller must be thankful she's not nominated for a musical this year!)
In Lady Day Billie names Bessie Smith and "Pops" as her big inspirations, so it was a natural segue to follow up that with Satchmo at the Waldorf. Like Billie, Louis, played by John Douglas Thompson, is in failing health (apparently not due to drug use, though, despite his lifelong love of marijuana). As the play opens, he staggers into his dressing room, desperately puts an oxygen mask to his face, then turning on a tape recorder, begins telling his life story, supposedly for a book he's writing. (Armstrong in real life was constantly recording pewrformances and conversations.)
He's both proud and profane, though not tragic - proud of his worldwide fame, rising from the poverty of his childhood in New Orleans, and profane talking about other people, especially critics and musicians like Miles Davis, who accuse him of being an Uncle Tom. Armstrong is unapologetic about his ability to make audiences happy and unabashed about his musicianship. "The biggest things I did for jazz," he says, "were swinging and singing."
At the core of the play, written by Terry Teachout (the author of critically-praised biographies of both Armstrong and Duke Ellngton) is Satchmo's relationship with his white manager, Joe Glaser, who has rescued Armstrong from gangsters and run his career. Armstrong is grateful that Glaser has made him a star with his business decisions (freeing him to do what he loves, namely play), but he feels betrayed that he was left out of Glaser's will. Little does he know that Glaser, whom he considered a friend, owed his own debt to the mob. If there's one takeaway from the play, it's that you just never know someone as well as you think you do.
Thompson, who's won raves for his work in The Emperor Jones, Othello, and other productions, is brilliant, not just as Armstrong, but as Glaser and Miles, too, often shifting characters in a split second. Unlike Audra in Lady Day, he doesn't perform any music, but he captures each of the characters, and when as Louis he ends an anecdote with a gravelly "Yeah!," you understand the joy that kept Satchmo going, despite the critics, the constant touring, and his physical decline.
Lady Day and Satchmo are perfect companion pieces, with performances you'll never forget. It's worth seeing them both.