Fuse Theater Review: “Satchmo at the Waldorf” — An Off-Key Portrait of a Jazz Giant

As Louis Armstrong, the gifted actor John Douglas Thompson is working with a script whose lines and contours are as woefully predictable as a profile in the old Life magazine.

Satchmo at the Waldorf. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Presented by Shakespeare & Company at Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA, through September 16 (moving to the Long Wharf in New Haven, CT, October 3 through November 4).

By Helen Epstein.

John Douglas Thompson in the Shakespeare & Company production of SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF. Photo: Kevin Sprague

I wish I could report that in Satchmo at the Waldorf, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout’s first play, John Douglas Thompson has found a star vehicle worthy of his many gifts, but that is not the case.

Thompson, who is in his seventh season at Shakespeare & Company this summer, has been well cast by Shakespeare & Company before—in Richard III and Othello as well as contemporary work such as The Dreamer Examines His Pillow—and I’ve admired his commanding, often magnetic, presence onstage in Lenox. For many critics, Thompson radiates intelligence; he has an impressive vocal and gestural range; and he is primarily a stage actor who has resisted the lure of more lucrative film work.

But as Satchmo, the tall, graceful Thompson is seriously challenged by portraying a ubiquitous American who looked and sounded nothing like himself. He’s also working with a script whose lines and contours are as woefully predictable as a profile in the old Life magazine.

Except for the tissue of expletives, that is. Perhaps in his eagerness to reveal the “real” man behind the legendary big smile and genial manner, Teachout has Armstrong speaking like the Black Panthers he was so distant from, although the script acknowledges that in this theater, as well as in his life, he’s addressing “white folk.” His lines are so “shit”-ridden that I began to feel I was back in the theater of the 1970s. It’s a relief when the musician recalls a cub reporter who sneaks into his hotel room for an interview and then confesses that his paper won’t print the term “Motherfucker.” The substitute Armstrong suggests—”Uneducated ploughboy”—is one of the best lines Thompson gets to deliver.

Like Hershey Felder’s Leonard Bernstein, Satchmo recounts the biography of an American musician—where and when he was born (New Orleans, 1901 in Armstrong’s case); his family; his schooling; how he connected with his instrument; and how he struggled against the culture of his time. He talks about the people he loved and the people who helped him. But while Felder, the actor/pianist/playwright who portrayed Bernstein, dramatizes his narrative with vignettes and evocations of both family members and other musicians, Teachout’s script gives Thompson a paucity of such material. We don’t get a sense of the jazz world in which Satchmo lived. Instead, with not much by way of explanation or transition, Thompson is called on to portray Armstrong’s Mafia-linked manager Joe Glaser—with whom Armstrong had a long and ambivalent relationship—and Miles Davis, who as a representative of a subsequent generation of jazz artists looks back and down at Armstrong.

John Douglas Thompson, as Louis Armstrong, is always a pleasure to watch, but SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF don’t give him much to work with. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

Neither the direction, the set (a dressing room at the Waldorf), the lighting, the sound, or the costume design alleviate the predictability of this production, which appears to be aimed at diverting the least demanding among Broadway audiences. Armstrong’s music serves mostly as discreet background, and Satchmo hardly reflects on it. Where Felder was able to perform the music of and comment on musical phrases as he played, Thompson’s Armstrong is given no such option or opportunity.

Watching this actor perform, however, is always a pleasure—whether he’s fiddling with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder; dictating his memoirs, as Armstrong apparently did in real life; chugging Pepto-Bismol; or channeling the coolness of Miles. Sachmo at the Waldorf gives us an accomplished performer making the best of a bad gig, but don’t expect much else.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp and other books about the arts.

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