Satchmo At The Waldorf

Total Rating: ***
Opened: May 26, 2015
Ended: June 6, 2015
Country: USA
State: California
City: Los Angeles
Company/Producers: Long Wharf Theater and Shakespeare & Company
Theater Type: Regiona
Theater: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts - Lovelace Studio Theater
Theater Address: 9390 Santa Monica Boulevard
Phone: 310-746-4000
Running Time: 90 min
Genre: Solo
Author: Terry Teachout
Director: Gordon Edelstein

“The whole history of jazz can be summed up in four words: Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker,” said trumpeter Miles Davis.

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Both Parker and Davis figure in Satchmo at the Waldorf, the solo play about Armstrong which is now strutting its stuff at the Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills. Starring as Armstrong is John Douglas Thompson, who was nominated for a Drama Desk award when he did Satchmo at New York City’s Westside Theater last year.

Written by Terry Teachout, drama critic at the Wall Street Journal and author of “Pops,” a biography of Armstrong, Satchmo is set in a backstage dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria. The time is 1971, and Armstrong is in his 70s and ailing, as we learn from his first entrance when he staggers in on shaky legs and heads straight for an oxygen tank. After gulping down a whiff or two of oxy-2, he turns, faces the audience, and starts telling his life story in pungently profane fashion.

This is not the Armstrong we have met before, the Armstrong who never cussed while fronting his band or appearing on Ed Sullivan or giving interviews to Time Magazine. This is Armstrong uncensored, a bold, bawdy, sometimes vengeful black man with numerous grievances to get off his chest.

Don’t get the idea, though, that Satchmo is something of a screed, with an angry Armstrong lashing out for 90 minutes against his enemies. There is quite a bit of payback in the show, but mostly it’s an entertaining and often funny biographical portrait of the musician, who came up from poverty and racism in New Orleans to become a famous and much-loved performer, a jazz legend in his time.
Armstrong was all about jazz until he met Joe Glaser, a mob-connected promoter who became his manager. Glaser knew Armstrong was a genius on the horn but would never make big bucks with it. It was Glaser who turned Armstrong into a cross-over artist, a pop singer whose renderings of tunes like “Hello Dolly” and “Mack the Knife” would reach the top of the charts.

Armstrong got rich working for Glaser–on a handshake!--but couldn’t help but feel deep inside that he had betrayed his calling. His feelings were further exacerbated when the new boys on the jazz block, beboppers like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, called him not just a has-been but an Uncle Tom, clowning it up for the white folks.

The remarkable Thompson briefly takes on their personages, but mostly he alternates between Glaser and Armstrong, helped only by quick light changes and his own acting skills to differentiate between the two men, who went from being friends to antagonists over the years.

That conflict gives Satchmo much of its drama, but the real strength of the play lies in the affectionate, loving portrait it paints of Louis Armstrong, a man with a golden horn and heart.

Cast: John Douglas Thompson
Technical: Set: Lee Savage; Costumes: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting: Kevin Adams, recreated by Wilburn Bonnell; Sound: John Gromada; Production Stage Managers: Hope Rose Kelly & Lora K. Powell
Critic: Willard Manus
Date Reviewed: June 2015.