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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Satchmo at the Waldorf
By Jon Magaril
One of the country's most heralded classically trained actors, Thompson made the Mark Taper Forum sway with fearsome emotion in the '13 revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the August Wilson masterpiece. And now he's going strong in Satchmo at the Waldorf, Terry Teachout's theatricalized piece of research about jazz master Louis Armstrong.
Teachout knows whereof he writes. The Wall Street Journal's theater critic, he moonlights as a jazz musician and penned the biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. He's chosen to focus his first play on the central conflict in the trumpeter's professional life: whether to follow his muse or the marketplace. His '20's ground-breaking work with The Hot Fives earned him respect from jazz aficionados, but his chart-topping version of "Hello, Dolly," a song he derided, made him an American icon. The structure of the piece reflects the theme all to well by incorporating the tried-and-true with the refreshingly rare.
The set-up's straight out of the solo show playbook. Repairing to his well-appointed dressing room suite at the Waldorf after his final public concert, the trumpeter decompresses by regaling us with tales of his life. Teachout gilds the lily by soon adding another common trope of the monodrama, though its triteness is offset by being based on fact. Armstrong records these memories on reel-to-reel tape for a planned autobiography.
Most of Pops' stories stand in stark contrast to his irrepressibly ebullient public image. Exhausted and stooped just four months before his death, he periodically sucks on oxygen from a tank. But what fuels him most is bitterness. Satchmo isn't going gentle into the good night. Instead, he blows hot and hotter at the unfair way he's been treated by most everyone, from contemporaries like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to, most especially, his long-time manager Joe Glaser.
Teachout gives each man a voice, expanding the show from straightforward biography to a series of solo riffs on the theme of art vs commerce, self-respect versus assimilation. Surprisingly, Glaser gets almost as much stage time as Armstrong, providing not just contrast but personal conflict. The pair differ in their color, religion, artistic temperament and, most importantly, perspective on their long-standing relationship. But they both express themselves in self-justifying, raucously entertaining, expletive-laden arias on their hardscrabble experiences, particularly with each other.
Armstrong's consumed by anger and hurt over Glaser's betrayals: the manager never invited his most important client into his home and left him out of his will. Yes, Glaser's dead, which leads to some dramaturgical fuzziness.
While Satchmo speaks to us from a particular place and time, the others talk to us in the abstract. This allows us to learn what Armstrong never did about how the will's stipulations came about. While the answer may be true, it's a bit of a dramatic fizzle as it doesn't relate all that integrally to the issues between the two men.
Ultimately Teachout proves more accomplished at arranging than composition. But if he provides little evidence that he's got his own authorial voice, he offers an actor ample opportunity to make a mark. And the vividly authoritative Thompson is certainly up to the task.
Admittedly, he isn't physically right for any of the roles and he doesn't attempt spot-on vocal mimicry. Instead of impersonation, he provides a personification of the characters' basic characteristics, scoring with Satchmo and Glaser's high dudgeon and Davis' hauteur.
It's been a remarkable season for the actor. In New York, he's been equally persuasive as the cunning world conqueror Tamburlaine the Great and a world-weary barfly in The Iceman Cometh. Though Teachout's play doesn't allow him to dig as deep as those, it's a splendid display of his gifts.
Director Gordon Edelstein's production gives him a sleek setting, with compelling transitions that support Teachout's tricky time signatures. Scenic designer Lee Savage provides an elegantly appointed Waldorf suite with dressing room mirrors. When Glaser speaks, the sharp lighting by Kevin Adams, as recreated by Wilburn Bonnell, shifts so that the mirrors become transparent windows, revealing a cityscape backdrop beyond them. The Miles Davis interludes, which serve as thematic counterpoint, sit outside the overall design by being isolated in overhead light.
John Douglas Thompson is one of the rare actors who can command attention in only a pinspot. While he's not yet at the level of an all-time great, Satchmo at the Waldorf proves he may be on his way. A must-see for Armstrong fans, the fast-paced solo show will best be remembered by LA audiences as the time they got to see Thompson at the Wallis.