Review: ‘Satchmo at the Waldorf’ at ACT (*****)

 

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

John Douglas Thompson, in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” as jazz great Louis Armstrong. Photo by F. Charles Erickson.
John Douglas Thompson, in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” as jazz great Louis Armstrong. Photo by F. Charles Erickson.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

To the uninitiated, Louis Armstrong may be just an occasional visitor on old black and white TV screens a long time ago. Even then, his presence, his flamboyance, his white hanky, and his astounding gravelly voice stood out from all the crooners and balladeers of years gone by. And now, we know how and why and where it all comes from because Terry Teachout has written the biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and the play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” And the impressive John Douglas Thompson spares no breath, no false innocence, and no qualms to bring us a down-home interpretation of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong — in the flesh, once again, every night. Thompson and Teachout’s Armstrong is raunchy, randy, and roaring with mid-century American Jazz life. Along the way, the play takes up gangsters, child abuse, poverty, politics, Judaism, friendship, and the evolution of musical styles and popular art.

Thompson’s one man show of Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” puts “the greatest horn player in the world” right in front of us as a person who embodies old-fashioned language, earthy morality, and strong words from the harsh world of 1900s Louisiana to New York in 1971, and beyond. We hear Armstrong’s tales from Storyville, the ghetto where he was born to a prostitute, his mother, “Mayann,” abandoned by his father; and how he came up, learning his notes from his mentor, King Oliver, in that early Blues period. We follow his career to his final his performances at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, seventy years later. But he did not get there overnight.

The time is March, 1971, and we are alone with the talkative Armstrong, backstage at the Waldorf, after an exhausting performance. The 70 year old is suffering from exhaustion, disease, and dismay—but he keeps on performing because he loves his music and his audiences. He was born to play the horn for everyone, to scale the heights from Storyville to New York, and the global Jazz World.

But more than an international superstar showing off, John Douglas Thompson’s brilliant embodiment of Satchmo brings together strands of the American story. Thompson’s Armstrong shows us an insecure and shy artist who never really escaped his origins in the Deep South of Louisiana. There’s no way to sugar-coat or hide from the abuse, neglect, and poverty that mark the beginning of Louis Armstrong’s life in 1900. He carries the wounds and pains of those early years with him every step along the Blues and Jazz. He is singing his own melancholy life in every note, smiling. Satchmo—coming from Satchel Lips—another coinage that boys used to make fun of him, ironically—carries the pain of childhood every step of the way from New Orleans, on the river boats to Chicago, to many to movies and a star on the sidewalk, awards, and “Hello, Dolly.” He even beat out the Beatles to a Number One record.

In Armstrong, we hear the story of the Great Black Migration from South to North in the 20s through the 70s, all wrapped up in one “storybook” character, the Son and the Father of the Blues, himself. Now that the definitive history of that Migration has been written—by Isabel Wilkerson in her beautiful book The Warmth of Other Suns, we can appreciate better how hard it was for a person raised in deprivation and oppression to actually escape the Jim Crow world. It took Armstrong many lifetimes to escape the orbit of the police state that post-Reconstruction South made for African Americans, a history ongoing.

Thompson’s superb dramatic portrait of one man moving musically through the decades, astounding audiences throughout the country, becoming an American Jazz Ambassador to the world is a triumph of story-telling and artistry. He shows us the making of a man and an artist, like Meryl Streep’s Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher, Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles—but with the focus of an 90 minute canvas that covers a great swath of 20th Century U.S. history. This is more than biography—it’s human achievement, dramatic genius, careful research, and a theatrical milestone. Thompson in Satchmo’s dressing-room rushes onstage saying, “I shit my pants.” That grabs our attention, and we follow his every move and every daring word from there on.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” is the stuff of tears and torment, embodying an heroic life, a tragic arc, an American history. We learn more about Satchmo and his Jewish-mobster manager and friend, Jerry Glaser, than we know of Othello and Iago. We find out they are help-mates and counterparts. We learn about the arguable pronunciations of his name, Louie vs. Louis; about his love for his four wives; his devotion to wife Lucille; his friendship with Glaser, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and other stars. Many rose to fame because of his music and his smile.

Thompson becomes Miles Davis who attacks Armstrong, as the consummate actor slips smoothly and slyly first into Glaser’s persona, and then into Davis’s, without dropping a syllable. The set and lighting change slightly and we enter their competing worlds, too. We learn the secrets of his relations with his lifelong Manager, Glaser, and find out who actually invited the Best Horn Player in the World to dinner—even once. Can you guess?

And we learn how he got annoyed when a cub reporter, again embodied drolly by Thompson, peppered him with questions about segregated schools in Arkansas; and how Armstrong finally blurted out in anger at President Eisenhower about the continuing abasement of African American schoolchildren. Perhaps Armstrong sparked the President to take action at Little Rock.

Thompson lets us feel the pain of accusation and alienation, as Glaser manipulates and Davis accuses Armstrong of being out of date and an Uncle Tom. But they did not live the life and carry the anger that makes Louis’s music so unique. They focus on the business or new styles of music, while Armstrong popularizes Jazz among all the people in his vast audiences. John Douglas Thompson has Terry Teachout’s first play, from its early run at the Long Wharf in New Haven, Connecticut in 2012, all across the country, landing now at ACT in The City.

Along with the brilliant direction of Gordon Edelstein, Thompson and Teachout have made history come alive. They have made a show that brings Armstorng’s origins and transformation of America into the room. When we hear about his having to eat out of a paper bag on the tour bus because whites only hotels and restaurants would not admit him, we know that Thompson is giving us bitter truths. His Satchmo is patient, funny, accepting, and rebellious in his own way.

Thompson has won many awards for his Shakespeare and for this historic one man show. He, and his playwright, director, set designer, lighting designer use his deep deep craft dive to the depths of Satchmo’s soul. There, Thompson comes up with the hero’s sheer joy, optimism, and energy—and a pearl of wisdom for audiences to contemplate, over and over, each night at the Waldorf.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” by Terry Teachout plays at American Conservatory Theater, through February 7, 2016. For further information, click here.

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“Satchmo at the Waldorf,” by Terry Teachout, produced by A.C.T. Director: Gordon Edelstein. Assistant Director: Tyrone Davis. Scenic Design: Lee Savage. Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi. Lighting Design: Kevin Adams. Sound Design: John Gromada. 

Cast:

John Douglas Thompson: Louis Armstrong/Joe Glaser/Miles Davis.

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