Writer and arts critic Terry Teachout first encountered jazz great Louis Armstrong on "The Ed Sullivan Show" — thanks to his mother. It was the mid-1960s, and Armstrong was singing "Hello, Dolly!"

He recalls: "My mom called me in and said, 'This man won't live forever. I want you to remember him.'"

Teachout remembered, all right.

In 2009, he wrote "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," which was lauded by The Washington Post, The Economist and The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year.

Now he has written a play about Armstrong, "Satchmo at the Waldorf," which will make its world premiere Thursday in Orlando. Noted local actor Dennis Neal will star in the one-man show as both Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser. Veteran director Rus Blackwell will direct.

Why Orlando?

Teachout says it's because of the Blackwell-Neal team.

The two, both co-founders of Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre, came on board to prepare a 45-minute preview version as part of the Winter Park Institute's program of arts and cultural learning last winter. Teachout, The Wall Street Journal's drama critic, has an ongoing relationship with the institute, whose programs are presented through Rollins College.

The preview boosted Teachout's confidence in the piece: "It was the first time I really felt like I had something that would work." He was also impressed by Blackwell and Neal's interpretation of the play, Teachout's first.

The two Central Floridians also had fallen for the show — and they asked Teachout for the chance to be involved in a full staging.

"The three of us sat over a meal of red beans and rice," Neal recalls. "I said, 'Terry, I want to do this play. Can I do it?' We talked and walked away with him saying, 'Yeah, you can do it.'"

"Not to put too fine a point on it," says Teachout, laughing, "but I said, 'Hell, yes!'"

The enthusiasm and mutual admiration have colored the project — in conversation, all three men pepper their remarks with praise for one another.

"As soon as we finished [the preview performance] I looked at Terry, and I was beaming. I loved it," Neal says.

"He is uncanny," Teachout says of Neal. "What a stroke of luck Rollins College dropped him in my lap."

Of course, Neal's enthusiasm only took him so far. It's his first time performing in a one-man show, and he quickly discovered how much work that is.

"When I printed the script out, it was 60-something pages. Learning it has been a bear," Neal says. "I'm up with this thing at 3 or 4 in the morning."

Complex ideas

Compounding the difficulty is the play's setup, which requires Neal to portray not only Armstrong, but Joe Glaser — Armstrong's white manager. Race is certainly part of the story as Armstrong, one of the foremost black musicians of his time, often played in the still-segregated South.

Neal thinks his characterizations will let the audience see beyond his own race.