Review: Thompson a Virtuoso in the Fascinating SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF

By: Mar. 04, 2014
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Patrons at the Westside Theatre expecting a family-friendly ninety minutes with the cherubic jester of sweet jazz that was Louis Armstrong's public persona will certainly be taken aback by the first salty-tongued sentence of Terry Teachout's Satchmo At The Waldorf.

John Douglas Thompson
(Photo: T. Charles Erikson)

And that's just the beginning.

Teachout, best known as the Wall Street Journal's drama critic, is also the author of the 2009 biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and fashioned the text of his fascinating new solo play after what he heard on over 600 private audio reels recorded by the man himself; a kind of verbal memoir.

The creation of that persona, and the way it was both accepted and rejected, becomes a major issue in the life and career of one of America's iconic geniuses; the man most closely identified with the creation of the art form most closely identified with this country.

John Douglas Thompson's appearances in Shakespeare plays, coupled with a magnificent turn in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, have established him as a consistently thrilling stage actor. Now he's captured an original role that's a worthy showcase for his exceptional talents; a beloved artist, near the end of his life, defending his legacy to those who he feels have abandoned him.

Lee Savage's set depicts the dressing room at New York's Waldorf-Astoria. It's March of 1971 and the 70-year-old legend, four months before his death, stumbles to an oxygen tank to catch his breath while the applause from his most recent set has barely subsided. His body is failing him in more ways than one, as he graphically describes, but he must keep playing his music.

The play covers his New Orleans childhood - being raised in brothels and honky-tonks before learning to appreciate a disciplined and structured life at the Colored Waif's Home - as well as how his fourth marriage, to chorus girl Lucille, was the one where he struck gold, but the major focus is on Armstrong's relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser.

John Douglas Thompson (Photo: T. Charles Erikson)

Though some would see the unusual business arrangement between Armstrong and Glaser to be a case of a powerful white man taking advantage of a black man, the musician calls him a father figure and regards him as the white man who kept an eye out for him so he wouldn't be harmed by other white men.

Thompson frequently and abruptly switches from the elderly musician's languid stride to the clipped pace and nasal Chicago accent of his mob-connected colleague.

It's Glaser who influences Armstrong to sing more instead of showing off his revolutionary trumpet skills; a move that's not appreciated by jazz purists but nevertheless makes him a major celebrity by increasing his appeal to white Americans.

When Thompson switches to an understated Miles Davis, it's to accuse Armstrong of being an Uncle Tom; a clown who, despite his universal influence among the jazz community, acts like he's ashamed to be black. ("Man gets up there and pulls out that hankie and starts jumping round like Jim Crow on a stick-all to make them sad white motherfuckers happy.")

Davis wasn't alone in his opinion, and Armstrong mentions more than once how he never sees anyone but white people in his audiences anymore.

We never see Armstrong play his horn, but director Gordon Edelstein keeps the visuals interesting by illustrating the man's post-performance routine of slowly changing into his street clothes and carefully cleaning his instrument before putting it to bed.

Beginning the play drained and exhausted, Thompson shows him gradually revealing the sunny persona we're accustomed to as he regains energy. The meticulous process is even more impressive when you consider that the actor is also popping in and out of the two additional characters.

Earlier this season, Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man examined the career of another ground-breaking black American celebrity who lost favor with those of his heritage, actor Stepin Fetchit. But while Fetchit's achievements are generally forgotten, the legacy of Armstrong will be with us for a long time, making this production resonate all the more deeply. Teachout's play and Thompson's completely captivating performance make for compelling tributes to an artistic original.

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