Backstage With Louis Armstrong

Theater of the American South Festival, Wilson
Through May 27

As much as I’d like to say the same for Backstage With Louis Armstrong, this otherwise likable production needs some serious musical direction before it can truly be called ready for prime time.

Danny Mullen has clearly done the necessary research for this solo biographical show on the famed mid-century jazz trumpeter, vocalist and international ambassador of goodwill. On stage, Mullen’s speaking voice is more than a fair match for the gruff-throated growl of the legendary jazzman.

Until, unfortunately, he starts singing. Yes, the performer has Satchmo’s improbable, tricky phrasings down pat in song after song (even if his timing went off Sunday night toward the end of “C’est Si Bon”).

But Mullen’s vocal register is significantly lower than Armstrong’sand possibly a bit narrower as well. Prerecorded arrangements pitched too high for the performer forced him to sing awkward variations on the harmonies in most numbers, instead of the melodies. One exception: a notably soulful rendition of “Black and Blue.”

Mullen tours us through Armstrong’s career, leavening somber moments with earthy good humor. While some of the transitionsand biographical song cuesare cheesy, most of this ride is spent in good company.

But until a music director adapts the libretto to Mullen’s vocal range,

Backstage is likely to remain an off-key tribute to a master musician.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Southern accents.”