BWW Review: LIL & LOUIS at First Presbyterian Church Sarasota
Playwright Jo Morello brings to life the heartwarming and heartbreaking story of Lil Hardin Armstrong, a dominant force behind the success of her world famous husband, trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Lil was Louis' second wife and brilliantly talented in her own right as a jazz and classical pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and bandleader. To this day, many people don't know of her musical contributions and collaborations on many recordings. Memphis born Lil received higher education at Fisk University in Nashville and brought good bushiness sense, fiscal responsibility and a dynamic acumen of music to their careers and their marriage.
Their love affair however was full of complications. It was love at first sight for Louis when they met, having an eye for the ladies as he did. Lil took some time to warm up to Louis then fell deeply in love, eventually overlooking his affairs with other women, taking credit for songs she had written, and spending all of his money playing out of own gigs. With Lil's accusations, Louis never denied his unfaithfulness but rather blamed her for nagging him all the time. She was trying to provide stability and positive direction. He did not like rules and regulations, restrictions or career guidance coming from her. Although he reluctantly followed her direction, she was the thrust that got him to where he needed to be, doing solo performances and getting more recognition. Soon came the creation of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, which resulted in a series of recordings highly regarded even today. Lil watched Louis move up to international stardom, go through countless mistresses, and marry two more times. "I felt like I was holding the ladder and watching him climb," she said. Nevertheless they remained close until the very end.
The message this production brings to the stage is so relevant to our world today as even now women struggle for the right to have their work recognized and rewarded. Miss Morello sets the record straight (no pun intended), by telling Lil's story and shining the limelight on her wonderful contributions to music. It's worth taking some time to do your own research on this fascinating lady known as the Queen of Swing. Lil wrote more than 150 songs.
Miss 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. Morello states, "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".
Harry Bryce's direction allowed his cast to step into the depths of their characters and hone in on what made them tick. Audiences will know Mr. Bryce's marvelous work from numerous productions at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Bryce has developed visionary works as a director, choreographer, writer, and arts educator for over thirty years, winning many awards including the Carter G. Woodson Award of Merit for Lifetime Achievements in Performing Arts.
Singer and violinist Marta McKinnon as Lil shines as much as the talented woman she is portraying. Her vocals are beautifully rendered with love and a touch of sass. By watching Miss McKinnon you get the feeling Lil lived for music and it elevated her world when she was writing or performing. One of her solos, "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" is a heartfelt tearjerker.
Michael Kinsey as Louis used his charm to draw you in even though you may not like the way his personality starting changing. He makes you see in him what Lil must have seen. His vocals are spot on and so is that big smile Louis always flashed at his fans. Love the way Michael can scat! Like Lil, Louis lived for music and playing his trumpet was his joy. Mr. Kinsey brought that joy to the stage, which I'm sure overflowed all the way to the back row.
Other cast members, Andrea Coleman, Yvonne Lyles and Donovan Whitney, doing triple and quadruple duty playing a host of various characters made it look like a cast of 20, each holding their own and bringing vivid personalities to each of their characters. The cast as an ensemble and the crew as a team should be very proud of what they accomplished in telling a story worth being told.
A haunting take away from this production keeps echoing in my mind, "If Louis didn't have a Lil, would the world have a Louis?"
Lil & Louis runs Jan. 21-25 at First Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 2050 Oak St., Sarasota. For more information visit jomoll.weebly.com