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 Citys
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.
Dont 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 its 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 Glaseron a handshake!--but couldnt
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.