|John Douglas Thompson. Photo: T. Charles Erickson|
By Lauren Yarger
It’s 1971, Louis Armstrong has just finished a performance at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and we all are invited backstage as the great trumpet player takes a few minutes to record some of his memoirs for his autobiography.
Thanks to a masterful performance by John Douglas Thompson, directed by Gordon Edelstein, the years – and any questions we might have about the man behind the mask of the legend – soon fall away as we are drawn in to Satchmo at the Waldorf, a new play by Terry Teachout, at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II.
The intimate setting of Armstrong’s dressing room (Lee Savage, design) makes us feel right at home, while revealing things about the star his audience doesn’t get to see when he’s performing on stage: there’s the oxygen tank from which he immediately inhales after his performance, and the prescription meds that tell us Satchmo’s health is failing, for example.
“How did I get so old,” he wonders.
He changes clothes (Ilona Somogyi, costume design) and reflects on the career that finally landed him at the hotel’s famed Empire Room.
The story is a harmony of biography, history and character – lots of that – peppered with humor and language – lots of that too (the show posts a warning that it is for mature audiences).
Satchmo shares details about his beginings and manager, Joe Glaser, who rescued him from Chicago’s Al Capone mob, made him a star, then in Armstrong’s eyes, betrayed him. There also are thoughts about three failed marriages and a fourth success with current wife, Lucille. Along the way there is a long uphill fight as Armstrong builds a career in racially segregated America and criticism from other black celebrities, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who call him a “Tom” for smiling and dancing around to please the white man.
Satchmo tells a different story, however, of surviving in a world where he wasn’t allowed to stay at hotels where he entertained because of Jim Crow laws, where the blacks who worked in the kitchen often were the ones who made sure he got a meal and where even bathrooms weren’t available to the non-white who is considered the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century.
Besides embodying Armstrong, Thompson also expertly steps into the characters of Glaser and Davis, aided by lighting changes (Stephen Strawbridge, design), to give their perspectives on events. It keeps the 90 minutes brisk and engaging.
Adding to the atmosphere are some snippets of music (John Gromada, sound design) to give a sense of the high-note piercing trumpet playing and scat singing that made Armstrong so popular and took hits like “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly” to the top of the charts (the latter passing the Beatles for the number-one slot).
Thompson gives one of the most complete portrayals of a character you will ever see on stage. The performance is enhanced by a very good script by Teachout, who wrote the play following the completion of his biography about Satchmo: “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” Teachout skillfully avoids the pitfalls that often make these biographical pieces sound like someone repeating a bunch of facts. He knows what those are like and how to avoid them since he is the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.
This one is a don’t miss. Go get jazzed in the wonderful world of John Douglas Thompson at the Long Wharf through Nov. 4 on Stage II; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturday at 3 pm. Tickets are $45-$65 www.longwharf.orgor 203-787-4282.