Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Satchmo at the Waldorf"

Satchmo at the Waldorf
Terry Teachout

John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong
Our first glimpse of him is not what we remember from those bigger-than-life pictures of his sparkling eyes shining through squinted slots, huge smile of ivories that became his trademark, and rounded face always aimed upwards ready to rasp out a familiar tune we so loved.  Across the massive dressing room stumbles a hunched-over, old man clearly exhausted and suffering from arthritic pain.  After tumbling onto an over-sized divan and taking a few whiffs from a near-by oxygen tank, his first words to us are, “I shit in myself tonight ... I ain’t kidding you folks at all.”  Like most elderly folks, he must first tell us how his “heart’s gone bad, kidneys shut down” before he can get on to the business of the evening – sharing with us, his mostly white audience and thus most probably true fans and friends, the story of his long life of joys and injustices.  Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, superbly presented by the American Conservatory Theatre, takes us behind the scenes following one of the last performances of the famed trumpeter and singer, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.  First-hand, we hear of a complicated life that began in 1901 among whores in New Orleans, that skirted dangerously with the likes of Chicago gangsters Al Capone and Dutch Schultz, that filled the stages of both Southern dives and New York monolith hotels, and that overtime disgusted young African-American jazz artists who followed in his musical pioneering footsteps. 

With the familiar gravely voice, tendencies to stutter the first words of his sentence (“Bu, Bu, But” or “An, An, And”), and a smile that shines forth in quarter-moon fashion even as he chatters away, John Douglas Thompson quickly establishes that he is the great Louie so many in the audience remember – even if the stooped, hobbling man before us is only a shadow of the man we once saw on TV and movie screen.  He begins by shaking us up a bit with facts we may not have known (“I had me four wives, a whore, a piano player, and two chorus girls”) but quickly moves to more personally serious topics to tell us his side of the forty-year relationship with his manager, “my boss and my friend, Mr. Glaser,” as well as his rebuttals to the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie “who treat me like shit.” 

To the former, he entrusted on an initial hand-shake a lifetime of managing his career and finances so that he could do what he did best: “I’m just an old ham actor ... in the cause of happiness.”  Over and again, Louis tells us in one breath how much he misses his one-time friend and manager, now dead two years; and in the next he bitterly calls him a “mother-fucker” for a perceived breach of that first, spoken contract between them. 

Of the young jazz greats who have turned their backs on him, he is both bitter and mystified.  Shaking his head and swearing a streak of four-letter epitaphs, Louis (“not Louie”) does not understand how they cannot see that “swinging and singing are the two biggest things I did for jazz” and why they now think of him as an “Uncle Tom” because most of his audiences “look like a carton of eggs sitting out there.” 

Mr. Thompson’s Louis is clearly proud of his lifetime of achievements, none more that seeing himself for the first time in a Loony Tunes cartoon as a trumpet-playing angel. “Can’t get any more famous than that,” he boasts in the biggest of smiles and sparkles.  He is also deeply in love with his fourth wife of thirty years, Lucille, as we see in one of the more tender moments of the evening as our Louis tells with eyes near tears how his young wife made sure he had a decorated tree waiting for him in their hotel room after a Christmas Eve show, the first he had ever had in his life.  Mr. Thompson is masterful in baring all sides of Louis Armstrong’s huge personality in authentic and believable fashion, all the time reminding us as he gingerly undresses his tux to his underwear and redresses to go upstairs in the hotel to his wife that he is old and tired, satisfied and frustrated, willing to die soon but eager still to keep living.

John Douglas Thompson as Miles Davis
What makes a good telling of the Armstrong saga all the more great are the split-second switches our one-man show does to become Glaser and Miles Davis.  In a blink of the eye, time and again our Louis goes from a limping, crumpled old man to a six-foot-plus giant who has both business man and Chicago mob written all over him.  His Glaser tells us in a back-of-throat echo, “I am Louie, Louis is me ... To me, he is like a son.”  Glaser gets ample stage time to parallel Louis’s life’s accounting, adding in his version of the details --  like how he had to carry into their tour bus food in paper bags for Louie when they were in the South because the whites who flocked to his shows would not let him come into their restaurants.  As Glaser, John Douglas Thompson unveils a different tale from Louis’s, one also full of anguish as well as satisfaction with the way things played out between them and one that makes our hearing Louis’s anger over perceived breach of trust even more sad.

When turning into the young Miles Davis, no less remarkable transformation occurs by Mr. Thompson. The soft, breathy Davis admonishes his sometime hero for just wanting “to make all those white folks happy ... like some old-time darky.”  In exasperation, he asks us, “Why can’t he wipe that grin off his face?”  -- the very grin most of us in the audience still adore seeing.

If there is any slight disappointment in Mr. Teachout’s script or Mr. Thompson’s depiction of Louis Armstrong, it is that while we hear over and again as he caresses and cleans his horn, “My life, my soul, my everything came out of this trumpet” and as he tells us, “When I sing, I smile,” we get to hear almost no music in this ninety minute tour de force.  Probably everyone arrives expecting this to be a mixture of his singing and playing the trumpet; and we just have to readjust our incoming outlook as we clearly enjoy the fantastic, highly entertaining show we get instead (as witnessed by the instantaneous standing ovation in the end).

Gordon Edelstein has directed a flow of stories and characters that never misses a beat, neither too fast nor too slow.  Set in the kind of magnificent dressing room one might expect of the famed Waldorf Astoria, the play quickly announces when Glaser or Gillespie have taken over Armstrong’s body by wonderful reflections of other scenes in Set Designer Lee Savage’s plateau of mirrors across the back wall.  Kevin Adams’ lighting design also accentuates beautifully the changes of mood and scene that quickly occur throughout.

American Conservatory Theatre presents a gift to its San Francisco audience by bringing John Douglas Thompson and Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf to the Geary Theatre.  This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Rating:  5 E

Satchmo at the Waldorf continues through February 5, 2016, at the Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

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