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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A.C.T.'s Satchmo at the Waldorf Aint Got that Swing

Posted By on Tue, Jan 26, 2016 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge John Douglas Thompson as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong - T. CHARLES ERICKSON
  • T. Charles Erickson
  • John Douglas Thompson as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong

A.C.T.’s one-man play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, is set in Louis Armstrong spacious dressing room, post-performance, at the ritzy Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Why does it matter that the name of the hotel is in the title of the play? Was this a particularly memorable concert by Satchmo? Curiously, we don’t learn much about Armstrong’s music in this stage bio. What is significant is that the jazz legend — a son of a prostitute, a grandson of a slave, is playing — and sleeping and dining at the Waldorf.

“I’m not just playing here, I’m staying here!” Armstrong grins.

Like many oft-told accounts of world-class black entertainers treated as second class citizens, Armstrong played in all sorts of swanky segregated venues where he had to enter through the back door and eat at the kitchen door.

click to enlarge John Douglas Thompson as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong - T. CHARLES ERICKSON
  • T. Charles Erickson
  • John Douglas Thompson as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong
Written by Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, Satchmo at the Waldorf conveys this trajectory — from New Orleans’ red light district to Manhattan’s Park Avenue. It's 1971, four months before his death, and Louis Armstrong shuffles around his dressing room reminiscing and reflecting — as per convention — about his show biz career. It’s a familiar song, played very well, but, quite literally, without much music.

With the signature “saw mill” voice and an old man’s hunch, John Douglas Thomson’s Armstrong pulls down his pants and pulls up his beige, old-man socks, telling us about the early days: his run-ins with Al Capone, his wives, and — to a much smaller extent — his relationship to his music. Satchmo rhapsodizes about his connection to the trumpet to his love of the melodies and the arrangements. He polishes that trumpet, he fondles that trumpet, but he never plays that trumpet. Thomson is a deft actor but, I imagine, he’s not a singer or a musician. We get nary a scat.

Instead, Teachout focuses on Armstrong’s conflicted relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser. Glaser was like a father to him, a father who screwed him out of money in the end. Louis’ monologue takes turns with Glaser’s, and the two get a chance to tell their sides of the story. Thomson will lose the gravelly black voice, un-slouch his posture, turn on the Jewish accent in order to embody Joe Glaser. The transformation is nifty and effective, if a tad parlor-tricky.

A break in the back-and-forth comes when Thomson becomes a third persona, Miles Davis. Under Gordon Edelstein’s prosaic direction, Thomson-as-Davis is dimly lit in a deep, menacing red with smooth jazz in the background. His cool jive contrasts with Louis’ big, friendly persona. It's all a bit cartoonish Greenwich Village hepcat, but Davis introduces political substance. The younger generation of black jazz artists are making music — by blacks, for blacks — and Davis sees Armstrong as an Uncle Tom. Armstrong acknowledges that his audience is uniformly white. (It's like playing to “a cartoon of eggs.”) But he defends his right to make people smile.

While the Davis-Armstrong (devil-angel) back-and-forth introduces a gripping and authentic tension, the play focuses on the less compelling relationship between Armstrong and Glaser. As Armstrong, Thomson is indubitably likable. And jazz fans will of course enjoy the tidbits and the yarns, the unexpected popularity of "Hello, Dolly!" — a song that toppled the Beatles on the charts, but that Armstrong didn’t like and could hardly remember. Requisite poignancy is delivered through Armstrong’s sadness that father-figure Glaser betrayed him, seeing Armstrong not as a friend but as a cash cow. Requisite humor is delivered by an unexpected barrage of profanity coming out of this sweet, smiley old man. Bringing in the noise and the funk would have surely helped. Otherwise, acting about music is like dancing about architecture.

Satchmo at the Waldorf, through Feb. 7, $20-$105, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary, 415-749-2228.

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Erika Milvy


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