Louis Armstrong is widely remembered as the avuncular, raspy-voiced singer of evergreens like “Hello Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World.” But hardcore fans are often more interested in the artist as a young man, the musical genius who helped usher in a new form of jazz, redefining the trumpet solo. While his later songs in the sixties are classics, they don’t come close to demonstrating Armstrong’s mastery, which may or may not make the end of his life the ideal vantage point for Satchmo at the Waldorf, the well-researched and impressively acted one-man celebration of this influential artist.
When John Douglas Thompson enters stage left, he makes a beeline for an oxygen tank, mopping his forehead and wheezing across designer Lee Savage’s well-appointed dressing room. Once the 69-year-old legend has caught his breath, he serenades the audience with anecdotes in a voice that’s sandpaper-rough yet irresistible. It’s a bittersweet portrayal of a man straddling two generations: the pre-Civil Rights era, when the way to get by was to offer a friendly face to intolerance and scorn; and later years, when such behavior was derided as Uncle Tom-ish by artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who followed in Armstrong’s footsteps.
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Thompson also plays Davis in a few monologues, but it’s hardly more than a noteworthy impersonation, given the character’s limited depth and dramatic function on the page. And while Davis’ Uncle Tom accusation stings Armstrong, it’s not what drives the play. That would be Armstrong’s relationship with Joe Glaser, his agent of 40 years. After making a fortune off the musician, Glaser died and left him nothing in his will. It’s a conflict that strikes at the heart of Armstrong’s relationship with white people. “Two thirds don’t like n—-s. But they all got one they love,” he smiles, having been that one for so many fans. Yet he laments the fact that Bing Crosby never invited him over to his house. For that matter, neither did Glaser.
When he learns of Glaser’s will, it can only make him wonder if he’d been a fool to trust the white man. Unfortunately, the conflict occurs well into the 90-minute piece, after a few too many colorful anecdotes. Owing to real-life circumstances, the question can only be resolved in the audience’s mind — not in Armstrong’s — denying the character much- needed catharsis.
Based on Wall Street Journal drama-critic-turned-playwright Terry Teachout’s 2009 bio, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, the text reads at its worst like a Wiki page in quotes. At its best, Thompson and director Gordon Edelstein find the right nostalgic notes and make them ring with emotional veracity.
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Thompson last appeared in Los Angeles in Phylicia Rashad’s outstanding production of Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, bringing fierce pathos to Loomis, a symbol of slavery’s toll on families. His work here is definitive, capturing a man 20 years his senior in every aspect but the wrinkles. In nuance, phrase, shuffle and cadence, he brings to life the lovable old master as he looks back with both bitterness and merriment. Unfortunately, his portrait of Glaser is hamstrung by Teachout’s one-dimensional characterization. While the playwright swears to the fidelity of Glaser’s cartoonish accent, the character sounds a bit like Edward G. Robinson by way of Bugs Bunny. Yet Thompson is a strong enough actor to make the transformation a memorable one.
By framing his portrait of Armstrong in the musician’s later years, Teachout brushes up against the era’s race issues, yet assiduously avoids writing a play about race. The generational divide and how it weighs on Armstrong offers great dramatic potential, which Teachout unfortunately explores in a cursory manner. He seems even less interested in the musician’s early, creatively fertile years, instead leaving audiences with the amiable old man who sang “Hello, Dolly!” While the relationship with Glaser occupies the heart of the play, Armstrong is the only fully fleshed-out character. And given the limitations of a one-man show, the two never meet, so neither of them comes to know the mind of the other.
Whatever flaws Teachout’s play possesses, none are enough to diminish the stunning performance of Thompson, who played the role to great success off-Broadway. With Wilburn Bonnell’s clever lighting, which turns the two-way glass of the dressing room mirrors into various backdrops, and John Gromada’s sound design, which gives us tantalizing snippets of Louis doing what Louis does best in classics like “West End Blues,” Satchmo at the Waldorf is a first-rate production. But Thompson is the reason to see the show. He’s an accomplished artist who elevates the material and makes it his own.
Cast: John Douglas Thompson
Director: Gordon Edelstein
Playwright: Terry Teachout
Set designer: Lee Savage
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound design: John Gromada
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Long Wharf Theatre, Shakespeare & Company