One-Man “Satchmo” at Long Wharf

by Tom Holehan

Two plays: one a classic, one new and each dealing with the African-American experience are currently on the boards at two Connecticut theatres. Lorraine Hansberry’s family drama, “A Raisin in the Sun”, is in revival at the Westport Country Playhouse while Terry Teachout’s one-man show about Louis Armstrong, “Satchmo at the Waldorf”, is the season-opener for New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.

 

“Satchmo” finds 70-year-old Louis Armstrong (a sturdy John Douglas Thompson), in his dressing room after playing a gig at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971. The play is one of those “...and then I did” solo outings where the character dictates his memoirs while conversing with the audience. Mr. Teachout, who has written an Armstrong biography, is primarily interested in Armstrong’s conflicted relationship with his long-time manager as well as the musician’s distress that white audiences remained his most ardent supporters. He reveals that to many in the African-American community he became an “Uncle Tom” who betrayed his race and played the grinning fool for white America.

 

That conflict makes for interesting if not devastating drama. But “Satchmo” is far more concerned with Armstrong’s love/hate relationship with his Jewish manager, an overly familiar theme which takes up most of the play’s 90-minute running time. Mr. Thompson, a commanding presence in Hartford Stage’s “Antony and Cleopatra” last season, seems in rather robust condition to portray a frail man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The actor is actually more successful when he play’s Armstrong’s ruthless, fast-talking agent and even funnier playing a resentful and embittered Miles Davis. It’s also a bit of a disappointment and surprise that Thompson never sings or plays the trumpet during the play. The snippets of Armstrong recordings heard in the background only leaves one wanting more.

 

The play, directed crisply by Gordon Edelstein, may be a less-than-auspicious opening for Long Wharf’s 48th season, but it is not without merit. In addition to the commendable lead performance, Lee Savage’s dressing room set design, Ilona Somogyi’s costuming, John Gromada’s sound and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting are at their usual high levels.

 

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” continues at Long Wharf’s Stage II through November 4. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

 

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

 

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