BWW Review: John Douglas Thompson as SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF
Bringing to life an iconic personality like Louis Armstrong is always something of a tightrope walk: the mannerisms must be there, yet the performance must not descend into caricature. It is a balancing act that John Douglas Thompson is remarkably adept at, and he is aided by Satchmo at the Waldorf's central conceit, which about the man behind Armstong's familiar public persona: a man who smoked weed, slept around, and got in deep with gangsters, a man who didn't talk much about the racial issues of his lifetime but who definitely had opinions about social injustice and the struggles of a black man trying to survive in a white man's world.
Armstrong not only survived in that world, he thrived in it. We see him in the final months of his life, playing the Waldorf-Astoria to mostly white audiences. He is a groundbreaker who, like many groundbreakers, has lived long enough to now be considered obsolete; his fellow African-Americans now dismiss him as an "Uncle Tom" and a race traitor. In Louis' eyes, he's just an entertainer whose job is to "live for the audience;" what does it matter if that audience's demographic has changed? The eternal question of art versus commerce comes into play once more.
Throughout the ninety-minute play, Thompson embodies not only the gravely-voiced, physically deteriorating Armstrong, but his longtime manager Joe Glaser (a sharp-talking, cynical Jew with Mafia connections) and Miles Davis (proud and husky-voiced, representing a new generation of jazz musicians who disparage Armstrong's onstage antics). Thompson's transitions between these three physically and vocally distinct individuals is flawless, and is aided by Wilburn Bonnell's lighting (based on original production designs by Kevin Adams and making clever use of the mirrors which line Armstrong's suite). The result is as compelling a performance as you are likely to see in the region this year, laced with folksy wit and surprising passion.
The world Thompson brings us into is often a dark one, laden with secrets, sacrifices, and the sadness of a life drawing to its close. But it is still, in the words of one of Armstrong's most beloved songs, a wonderful one.
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF plays now through March 6 at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm with matinees Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 4pm. For tickets, contact the box office at 719-255-3232 or visit theatreworkscs.org.