SATCHMO at the Waldorf

By ROSALIND FRIEDMAN

Say it isn't so! The sweet-smiling, wide-mouthed, gravel-voiced, trumpeter extraordinaire Louis Armstrong, cursed like a longshoreman, smoked weed, and wanted to be called Louis! Terry Teachout's new play, Satchmo, 90 minutes without intermission, tells us that and many other things that we did not know about this great African/American jazz musician who was born in New Orleans in 1901 and died in 1971.

 

While the one-man show is over-filled with expletives, it is an amazing American history lesson. Deftly directed by Gordon Edelstein, John Douglas Thompson's embodiment of three characters, the down-to-earth Armstrong, his only manager, pugnaciously Joe Glaser, white and Jewish, and the quietly sophisticated trumpeter Miles Davis, is awesome. Thoroughly convincing, Thompson moves seamlessly among the three disparate personalities painting a much more painful picture than Armstrong's public image projected.

 

We meet Louis Armstrong changing clothes (nicely done by Ilona Somogyi) between shows in the spacious dressing room backstage at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria; designed in cream and beige by Lee Savage and brightly lit by Stephen Strawbridge. He is very ill with kidney disease and at times makes his way to an oxygen tank to help his breathing. As he is taping reminiscences of his life for a book, we find out that his mother was a prostitute, as was one of his four wives; his father left the scene, early, and it was when he got into trouble and was sent to a reform school for black children that he became a musician. He later married Louise Wilson, the love of his life.

 

Early on, Armstrong is threatened by gangsters from Al Capone's mob and calls upon Glaser to help him. The staccato-voiced Glaser, the son of a doctor, was his best friend and his loyal adviser. They were so close, Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck. But Armstrong was hurt and resentful because Glaser did not leave him anything in his will, never realizing that Glaser was blackmailed and forced to sign away half of his company, Associated Booking, to Sid Korchak, front man for the same gangsters. Glaser managed many well-known stars like Billy Eckstein, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. He invented the title: “Louis Armstrong -- World's Greatest Trumpeter,” but advised him that his voice, not the exciting high C's he could hit with ease, was his ticket to success. He was proved right, when Armstrong recorded “Hello Dolly,” and although he didn't think it was much of a song, it became a mega hit.

 

Louis Armstrong negotiated the years of segregation with an outward smile and inner anger. Black people could perform on stage but they were not permitted to sleep in that same hotel. When he did become famous, he had a mantra: If you can't stay -- don't play!

 

Satchmo, an interesting exploration of a famous person, depicted by a wonderful actor who does not imitate but creates a realistic portrait, plays only through November 4 -- LongWharf Stage II.

 

This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts Radio.

 

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