John Douglas Thompson's Satcho Satchmo at the Waldorf, a Curtainup Review CurtainUp
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A CurtainUp Review
Satchmo at the Waldorf

Satchmo at the Waldorf Makes its New York Debut
"He was a major-key artist whose lavish generosity of spirit was part and parcel of his prodigal way of making music."— Terry Teachout about Louis Armstrong in Pops, the biography that has morphed into the drama critic-author's first play.

"I love the folks and they love me and we all have us a good time. Main thing is to live for that audience. That's what you're there for — to please the people."— Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong as he ruminates on his life and career in Satchmo at the Waldorf.

"You can't play nothing on trumpet that doesn't come from him," Miles Davis, who his admiration notwithstanding, denounced Armstrong for pandering to white audiences.
John Douglas Thompson
John Douglas Thompson
It's been quite a journey for Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout's first play, Satchmo at the Waldorf. It began with a still in progress but open for review premiere at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. It then had its official opening at director Gordon Edelstein's home base, Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticuct. Now it's in its Off'Broadway premiere at New York's Westside Theatre.

While Armstrong has certainly found someone who knows his jazz history in Mr. Teachout, his story would be just another biographical solo without John Douglas Thompson's impassioned performance as both the title character and his manager Joe Glaser.

The only real change since I saw Satchmo in Lenox, is that Mr. Thompson has deepened his demanding role and gotten more comfortable with being the only actor on stage. His shifts between playing Armstrong and Glaser are smoother than ever. My wish that Thompson's several times also tackling Armstrong admirer and critic Miles Davis could include some other jazz world critics like Dizzy Gillespie was already realized by the time the play left the Berkshires. Somehow the current lighting designer Kevin Adams's very effective highlighting of the Miles Davis moments somehow makes that Gillespie snippet unnecessary.

The staging is essentially the same, except that the upstage mirror no longer occasionally morphs into a view of the cityscape outside the Waldorf as it did in Lenox. This is a relatively minor omission. Too bad that the playwright didn't go a bit easier on his use of motherf---er. I don't doubt that the journals to which he had access did confirm Armstrong's use of this expletive. But the heavy use of this expletive on stage seems more like a crutch than a necessity.

Except for the above comments my original review still applies to Satchmo at the West Side Theatre and I'm therefore re-posting it below the current production notes.

Production Notes:
Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Cast: John Douglas Thompson
Scenic Design: Lee Savage
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting: Kevin Adams
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, no intermission
Westside Theatre 407 West 43rd Street (212) 239-6200
Tickets $39 and $79
From 2/15/14; opening 3/04/14; closing 8/03/14-- changed to 6/29/14 closing
Tuesday, 7PM, Wednesday & Saturday, 2:30PM & 8PM, Thursday & Friday, 8PM Sunday, 3PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 27th press preview

My Review of the Satchmo at the Waldorf during its premiere run
Satchmo at the Waldorf
John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong
(Photo credit: Kenneth Sprague)
The play Terry Teachout forged from Pops his 2010 biography of Louis Armstrong falls under the rubric of solo stage memoir. The title of the book was borrowed from the nickname associated with Armstrong as a result of his calling people "pops" because he tended to forget their names. The "Satchmo" part of the play's title comes from another common Armstrong nickname, this one short for the trumpeter's satchel mouth and the part about the Waldorf refers to the play's setting — the dressing room at the hotel where the ailing 70-year old musician is performing just four months before his death in 1971. While Mr. Teachout's playscript distills the massively researched book, it too presents a warts and all portrait of the man behind the famous ear to ear smile.

Though Armstrong is the pivotal character, Teachout has structured his script to make Satchmo's powerful manager, Joe Glaser have his say in this revealing rumination on the iconic musician/showman's life and career. The dual monologues works as a means to avoid this genre's tendency to come off more like a reading than a full--bodied drama. As importantly, the device serves to vividly illustrate how these two closely connected men, with different but well meshed talents thumbed their noses at those who viewed catering to ticket buying audiences as tantamount to artistic compromise or selling out.

Glaser felt Armstrong's big, long-term audience appeal lay in his being an all-around entertainer. Though the horn and the music he made with it was Armstrong's true passion, he also loved making audiences happy. Consequently he willingly followed Glaser's advice which made him a pop entertainer as well known for his raspy singing and big smile as his his unique trumpet playing.

For John Douglas Thompson alternating between Armstrong and Glaser is a chance to add yet another memorable performance to his growing resume of star turns. Though he explained at Shakespeare & Company's post opening celebration that being the only cast member was a new experience that took some getting used to for him, Thompson proves himself to eminently capable of holding the stage even without having other actors with whom to interact. Though he looks nothing like Armstrong, and even less so like Glaser, who was white, he becomes both men and segues from one to the other with remarkable smoothness.

A word about my above reference to "this stage of the play's life." The third performance of Satchmo at the Waldorf's run at the Tina Packer Theater, was billed as "a special localized press opening." This means that critics (and audiences) should be aware that the show isn't "frozen" but will undergo changes until its truly "official" opening at director Gordon Edelstein's Connecticut home base, the Long Wharf Theatre later this year .

I wholeheartedly agree with this decision to allow this dramatized new look at Louis Armstrong's crowd pleasing persona to evolve and change before an audience. Thompson seems to already have found ways into his role enabling him to compensate for the absence of other cast members. Teachout, a seasoned theater critic but a novice playwright, has wisely been in Lenox to take advantage of Edelstein's expertise to fine tune his script.

And so, the August 24th performance I saw was already different from the one some of my neighbors saw two nights earlier: The 90 minute running time listed in the program was trimmed by close to 15 minutes even though the playwright added a third character— another influential jazz musician, Miles Davis. The African-American Davis was just one of the many white and black musicians and critics who condemned Armstrong for using his unique gifts as a jazz trumpeter and compelling scat singer into a mass market entertainer best known for his "jillion times" performed super hit "Hello Dolly."

Despite his disdain for what he viewed as Armstrong's pandering to white audiences, Davis once said "you can't play nothing on trumpet that doesn't come from him." Adding him as a character underscores the complexity of the art versus commerce conundrum and helps to lessen the tendency for this, like so many solo pieces, to rely more on plot devices than plot to move the story telling forward. As of now, however, the add-on segment still feels tossed in rather than fully thought through. Though director Edelstein has staged the Davis snippets for Thompson to seamlessly switch characters, it would be interesting to see one or two other characters to make mini appearances (Dizzie Gillespie, another black musician and Armstrong critic and Jack Teagarden, the white blues man who played in Armstrong's band before forming his own band, come to mind).

Given that this is being reviewed as a work-in-progress, there are a couple of items I would add to my wish list of changes between now and the final freeze. Mr. Teachout has a wonderful ear for authentic vernacular and Thompson for interpreting the dialogue, and at one point even singing a teensy riff of "Hello Dolly." However, I wish he'd ease up on his use of "motherfucker." I understand how that word quickly strips Armstrong of that crowd-pleasing niceness to reveal a somewhat tougher, rougher man However, Glaser's dialogue is peppered with plenty of expletives, so why not get rid of some the MFs.

I'd also like to see the playwright revisit his opening. Having Armstrong rush into his dressing room, exhausted and grabbing hold of the oxygen mask he apparently travels with nicely establishes that this is a man in declining health. The words he speaks after he's able to breathe normally again would set the scene just as potently without adding his embarrassed revelation that he lost control of his bowels before the show. While that inelegant opening does have some shock value, it somehow seems unnecessary.

One thing I wouldn't change is Lee Savage's set with its backwall of a triple dressing room mirror that with the expert help of Matthew Adelson's lighting, changes to a window looking out on the scene outside the Waldorf. It's a set that will work on a proscenium stage as well, if not even better, than the Tina Packer Theater's thrust stage.

Whatever version of Satchmo at the Waldorf you see, it's guaranteed to send you rushing to your CD and Ipod collection or to watch the many video clips of Louis Armstrong , both the jazz great, the ever smiling pop entertainer.

This production ran at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox from August 22, 2012 to September 16th and later had another "official" run at Director Levenson's theater in Yale Repertory home in Connecticut.

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