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A CurtainUp DC Review
Satchmo at the Waldorf

"I don't want to be rich, I just want to play my horn." —Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong's manager, quoting Armstrong.
Craig Wallace
Craig Wallace as Louis Armstrong (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)
Satchmo at the Waldorf begins with an uncanny impersonation of Louis Armstrong's posture by the gifted actor, Craig Wallace. Belly forward, shoulders back, a white handkerchief in one hand and an ear-to-ear grin. No words, just a spotlight which goes down quickly. A very theatrical beginning to a very interesting piece.

Playwright/Wall Street Journal Theatre Critic Terry Teachout's adaptation for the stage of his biography of Armstrong hides nothing from Armstrong's very modest beginnings in Storyville, the wrong side of the tracks in New Orleans to his triumphant appearance, before a totally white audience at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. His early years were challenging. His mother was a whore and his father disappeared when Armstrong was an infant.

Getting in to trouble at a very young age was, ironically, Armstrong's salvation. He was sent in 1912 to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys where for the first time he heard the sound of a trumpet — the Home had a brass band — and that was it. He took lessons and knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Satchmo at the Waldorf lays out Armstrong's transitions from playing on Mississippi riverboats, to playing in Chicago, New York and, as his fame grew, all over the world. Always smiling (in public, at least) and always seeming at ease, Teachout lets the audience know what Armstrong was really like: a foul-mouthed womanizer, and, by the later days of his career, according to his fellow musicians, an Uncle Tom.

Craig Wallace, whose work in Washington has ranged from Shakespeare to wacky modern comedy roles, gives his best performance to date, in a one-man show no less. Wallace neither sings nor plays the trumpet but tapes of Armstrong's performances are interspersed in the performance.

Both playwright and actor have brought to the fore the contradictions in Louis Armstrong's nice, clever guy on stage; tough, determined and yet vulnerable when off it. Plus he very effectively takes on the roles of other characters most notably the cool dude Miles Davis sporting shades and his not altogether trustworthy manager, Joe Glaser, a cigar-chomping shyster associated with the Mafia. Under Eleanor Holdridge's direction, the contrasts in characters is very pronounced and the transitions from one to another are smooth.

The Mosaic Theater, located in what is now considered the hippest part of DC, has a very healthy vibe. It's a fun place to go. But, as a theater it does have a serious drawback and that is a stage that's too wide. Set designer Andrew Cohen has solved that problem by making a stage within a stage, cutting the width of the playing area by (I'm guessing) a half. What we see is a dressing room with spaces on both sides enhanced by Alberto Segarra's lighting where characters other than Armstrong offer their asides. It works extremely well.

The deservedly esteemed playwright/critic and former musician Terry Teachout attended the opening night performance. Asked to speak after the 95-minute show ended Teachout offered the critics prayer, "Oh, let it be good or let it be short." Satchmo at the Waldorf is both.

Editor's Note: This is one of those solo plays that tends to have a life in many theaters since it's economical to mount and offers a meaty role for an African-American actor. For our review of the play show during its premiere season in the Berkshires, and when it moved to Off-Broadway, Go here . Each of those production starred John Douglas Thompson. While Thompson didn't look nearly as much like Satchmo as Wallace does, he was also fascinating to watch.

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Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Starring Craig Wallace
Set by Andrew Cohen
Lighting by Alberto Segarra
Sound by Christopher Baine
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.
Mosaic Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($20 to $60) 202-399-7993; August 25 to September 25, 2016.
Review by Susan Davidson based on August 29, 2016 performance.

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