BWW Previews: LIL & LOUIS at First Presbyterian Church Sarasota
LIL & LOUIS, a new play with music about jazz pioneers Lil Hardin Armstrong and Louis Armstrong, will be presented in Sarasota for six performances from January 21-25, 2020, according to Jo Morello, multi-award-winning playwright and president of JoMo Productions.
Morello developed LIL & LOUIS at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, artistic home for the play, with legendary director Chuck Smith and presented it in a workshop production in March 2019 in conjunction with the Sarasota Jazz Festival. The January 2020 production is sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; Caldwell Trust Company; The Exchange; Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Eisenberg Lehman, One Stop Housing, First Presbyterian Church, and the Jazz Club of Sarasota.
The play, set mostly in Chicago, starts in the Roaring '20s and remains relevant today with elements of feminism, racism, addiction, and mob rule-but it's also a most unusual love story according to Morello. Although not a musical, LIL & LOUIS is bursting with dozens of songs and several dances of the era as it dramatizes the lives of the Armstrongs, from their first meeting through their marriage, divorce, careers, and beyond. Whether working together or alone, the extraordinarily talented couple created jazz with every move they made. With LIL & LOUIS, an experienced group of theatrical professionals presents the Armstrong's unique though sometimes embattled love, which endured until the very end.
The lives of Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong were inextricably linked, beginning in the Roaring '20s in Chicago when "The Hot Miss Lil," barely 20, was already a star. A sought-after pianist and the only woman in the acclaimed King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Lil wasn't impressed by the arrival of the cornetist and country bumpkin called "Little Louis"-but the musical soul mates married and became "The First Couple of Jazz."
Lil was the star-maker for unambitious Louis, who took her advice, although reluctantly. She pushed him to solo performances and was instrumental in the creation of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, resulting in a landmark series of recordings that are still highly regarded nearly 100 years later. Lil watched Louis move up to international stardom, countless mistresses, and two more wives. "I felt like I was holding the ladder and watching him climb," she said. Nevertheless they remained close until the very end. She continued her career as "First Lady of Jazz," "Queen of Swing," and a "Chicago Living Legend," but her star has been overpowered by his brilliance. A pianist, arranger, singer, bandleader (and tailor!), Lil composed over 150 songs. "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a jazz standard, has been recorded over 500 times. "Just for a Thrill" was a hit recorded by numerous artists including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Ink Spots, Peggy Lee and Nancy Wilson. Some of her songs have been recorded by The Beatles, yet she is forgotten.
Miss Morello took some time to answer a few questions for our readers:
What drew you to this storyline?
Actually Lil found me. I've been with the Jazz Club of Sarasota for two decades and always noticed a scarcity of female instrumentalists in the industry. At the 37th Sarasota Jazz Festival (March 2017), dedicated to Dick Hyman's 90th birthday, Dick brought in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band ("Live from Riverwalk"). Onstage, Dick and Bob Seymour, former director of jazz for WEDU, were talking about early jazz pioneers and mentioned Lil. I already knew about her and realized I might like to write about her. After the concert I was in the green room with Dick, Jim Cullum, and the others, thinking about Lil. I went home and Googled her name. Up came a page with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band (which jokingly calls Dick Hyman its eight member)-and their tribute to Lil Hardin Armstrong! I was sure then that I would tell her story.
I called Dick Hyman, a longtime friend, and told him my idea. He was intrigued and very encouraging. I felt that this play would be a good fit for Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe so I approached exec director Julie Leach and asked if they would be the artistic home for the creation and development of the play. She and Nate Jacobs considered the proposal, asked some questions, and were happy to agree. Since LIL & LOUIS is basically a Chicago story, I also approached WBTT resident director Chuck Smith, a Chicago resident and longtime director at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. He too agreed. We worked on the creation and development of the play and presented a workshop production as part of the 2019 Sarasota Jazz Festival in March 2019. As you know, Chuck's illness has forced him to withdraw. I approached Howard Millman, who has a long and proud theatrical history in Sarasota, first at the Asolo and now as a WBTT board member. He immediately responded and recommended the very capable Harry Bryce, another WBTT director. Fortunately Harry was available to step in. LIL & LOUIS is now getting on its feet as an independent production. It's produced by JoMo Productions, a 501(C)(3), but we continue to enjoy the support of several community organizations and businesses.
There's a strong feminists thrust in most of my work and LIL & LOUIS fits right in. This is the fourth of my plays with music about historical figures that have been produced. Three are about independent women and two of those three are about women who made invaluable contributions to the careers of the husbands--who then outshone them.
When I decided to write about Lil, I wasn't analyzing whether or not it would fit into my body of work. I just knew this was a story I had to tell. The focus is on Lil, who was a star in her own right long before Louis. She's an intriguing person. The play also dramatizes the unique love story of Lil and Louis. And there's lot of music, performed and recorded by acclaimed musicians under the direction of Randy Sandke. LIL & LOUIS is an amazing tale and I'm happy that we can tell it.
Lil's story needs to be told. She was called the first female jazz instrumentalist of significance. We want to restore her to her rightful place in history.
What do you think your audience will get from this musical?
Based on reactions from audiences at earlier stagings, I think they'll be surprised and intrigued. Many have said they ran home to look her up. They wrote such comments as "Wow! I never knew about Lil!" and "What a great story!." They'll learn about a woman who made major contributions to our culture and has sadly been forgotten. Lil was once known as "The Hot Miss Lil," "Empress of Jazz," "Queen of the Ivories," "Swing Queen," and more. She wrote over 150 songs, hit the Billboard charts, has been recorded y Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, Ink Spots, and many more. Some historians call her as a "foremother" of jazz. And she's been forgotten. I'm thrilled that our team is casting a spotlight on this incredible woman. I think our audiences will share the thrill of discovery when they learn about her.
As a playwright, JO MORELLO has seen her plays produced in NYC, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kent, UK, and read in 10 states. She has won dozens of fellowships, grants and/or contests and is president of the board of JoMo Productions, the nonprofit producer of Lil & Louis. She also serves on the board of directors of the Eugene O'Neill International Society. Lil & Louis will be the fourth of her historical plays with music that have been produced. As a producer, she was managing director of a summer stock theater company in Ohio for three years and more recently was founder and producing artistic director of Starlite Players in Sarasota, where she has also operated a public relations agency since 1986.
Director HARRY BRYCE has stepped in to replace Chuck Smith, who worked with Morello for several years in the creation and development of the play but had to withdraw for medical reasons. Both Smith and Bryce have strong ties to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, where the play was developed. "We're thrilled to have such a deep well of talent in our community," Morello said, "and we're incredibly sad about losing Chuck while he recuperates. At the same time, we're delighted that Harry was available and has so capably picked up the reins." Harry Bryce has developed visionary works as a director, choreographer, writer, and arts educator for over thirty years, winning numerous awards including the Carter G. Woodson Award of Merit for Lifetime Achievements in Performing Arts. He is best known locally for his work with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, where he has directed nine shows including Dearly Departed, Little Shop of Horrors, and Bubbling Brown Sugar. Regarding Lil & Louis, Bryce said, "It's always an honor to bring to life great writing about iconic figures in our history who happen to be African-American. I am also honored to be working with such talented people." In addition to his work in this area, founded the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre, serving as producing artistic director for five seasons, and also directed for 11 years at Cumberland County Playhouse. He has led dance companies in Richmond, VA, and Atlanta, GA, where his original concert ballet, Beyond the Cane Breaks: Moments in the Life of Harriet Tubman, performed to sell-out crowds and received national and critical acclaim at the National Black Arts Festival.
MARTA McKINNON portrays the feisty, vivacious Lil Armstrong, who was a sought-after pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and singer. A singer and musician (violinist) herself, Marta is best known in this area for her work with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, including the lead role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Cotton Club Cabaret. She has also performed at numerous other venues locally and regionally (Disney World's Epcot, Il Live Productions) and has just returned to this area after touring nationally and internationally.
JOE PLUMMER plays Louis Armstrong, the iconic trumpeter, singer, and all-around entertainer. One of Joe's memorable performances was his portrayal of Satchmo in Jammin' With Pops, directed by Chuck Smith, presented at Chicago's Apple Tree Theatre, and garnering nominations for both the Joseph Jefferson and Black Theatre Alliance Awards. A true Renaissance man, Joe is an actor, playwright, composer, choreographer, vocalist lyricist, and sound designer. As an actor, he has appeared in numerous productions throughout Chicago and around the country as well as in many performance on film and TV.
Four other actors complete the cast, each playing several characters and also performing in the play's ensemble:
ANDREA COLEMAN portrays Lil's friend Mae Brady, dancer Mae Alix, and others. Andrea is a veteran of musical theatre as a dancer, singer, actor, director, choreographer, and teacher. Her credits include multiple roles in Belize, California, Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Los Angeles and Nashville. One of her favorite credits is for "Ain't Misbehavin," which she has performed 3 times, most recently at Largo's Eight O'Clock Theatre.
MICHAEL KINSEY plays drummer Red Saunders, Joseph "King" Oliver, and others. His long list of credits includes performances at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, freeFall Theatre Company, Historic Asolo Theatre, The Players of Sarasota, and Starlite Players. His most recent performances were in Crumbs from the Table of Joy at freeFall and The Amen Corner at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (both in 2019). He is also a professional portrait photographer.
YVONNE (RONIN) LYLES plays Lil's mother Decie and others. The Sarasota resident has acquired extensive experience as an actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director, puppeteer, musician, teacher, and voice artist in New York, Vermont, and elsewhere. She has toured France, London, Brussels, and Germany, and has appeared on stage with Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, the Neville Brothers, and others. Most recently she appeared in The Amen Corner, directed by Chuck Smith at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (2019).
WHITNEY portrays musicians Jelly Roll Morton and Zutty Singleton among others. A newcomer to this area, the Saint Petersburg resident has garnered credits in Indiana and locally. Recent Florida theatre credits include Immurement (Theatre Odyssey), Between Riverside and Crazy (American Stage), and The Wind in the Willows (American Stage School Tour).
Lil & Louis presents dozens of songs of the era. NEA Jazz Master Dick Hyman has provided advice on music for the play. Acclaimed trumpeter Randy Sandke, has arranged the music, composed three new songs, and assembled the Lil & Louis Jazz Band to record the music: Peter BarenBregge, reeds; Herb Bruce, trombone; Roy Gerson and Bob Page, piano; Ken Salvo, banjo and guitar; and Howie Smith, tuba. Hyman and Sandke both have lengthy international careers that include jazz composition, arrangements, and performances on concert stages, on TV and film (e.g., numerous Woody Allen movies), and elsewhere. All of the musicians have major credits, and Hyman and Sandke both have lengthy international careers that include jazz composition, arrangements, and performances on concert stages, on TV and film (e.g., numerous Woody Allen movies), and elsewhere. Vocal coach is Steven Phillips, director of music ministries at First Presbyterian Church. He holds a master of music degree in choral conducting and has over thirty years of experience as a church musician. Choreographer Brentney J is a dancer/singer/actor/ choreographer who frequently performs with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, has choreographed in several states, and is director/choreographer for M.A.D. (Music Acting Dance, LLC), a musical theater training company in Atlanta.
Among area residents working to stage Lil & Louis: Stage manager and recent State College of Florida graduate Thomasa Hagney brings two years of experience including a general production internship at Florida Studio Theatre. Audio advisor Michael Treni is a prolific composer/arranger of music for recordings. He is also a jazz trombonist, music educator, playwright, and music publisher. Dramaturg Jack Gilhooley is a much-awarded, much-produced playwright and educator with two Fulbright awards and a lengthy list of productions internationally as well as nationally. Others in the tech crew include Ethan Vail, scenic and lighting design; David Meyersburg, technical director and graphic artist; Steve Patmagrian, technical consultant; Susan Sajic and Adrienne Pitts, costumes; Martha Kesler, props; and Michael Kinsey, photography.