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Shakespeare & Co's 'Satchmo' earns raves in off-Broadway transfer

John Douglas Thompson is earning raves for 'Satchmo at the Waldorf'
John Douglas Thompson is earning raves for 'Satchmo at the Waldorf'
T. Charles Erickson

One of the great benefits of going to theater in western Massachusetts is the opportunity to catch new plays during their gestational periods, before they go on to greater renown in New York or across the country.

Local audiences had one of those opportunities back in 2012 when Terry Teachout’s play “Satchmo at the Waldorf” enjoyed back-to-back productions at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, Mass.) and subsequently in neighboring Connecticut at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, both under the direction of Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. Last month, the play opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews at off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, with the dynamic American actor John Douglas Thompson giving a gripping, formidable performance as the legendary musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in this one-person show.

While younger audiences may not be familiar with Armstrong’s singular talents and charisma or his significant contributions to popularizing jazz in the American mainstream, Teachout’s play, based upon his comprehensive biography of the New Orleans born singer/trumpeter, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” offers a pretty decent primer. The play also serves as a reminder of the ongoing racism that confronted African-American artists as they toured the country. Thanks to the collaborative triumvirate of Teachout, Thompson and Edelstein, this snapshot of Armstrong toward the end of his career offers a fascinating and compelling glimpse of the performer’s power and grace.

Edelstein, in a recent interview, explained that he had known Teachout professionally through the writer’s role as the Theatre Critic for the Wall Street Journal. One day, when their paths crossed, Edelstein expressed his admiration for Teachout’s Armstrong biography. Teachout repied that he was working on a play based on Armstrong’s life and Edelstein offered to take a look at it once Teachout was ready. Upon reading the draft, Edelstein recalls that “I thought it had the makings of something significant.”

A reading was scheduled for Shakespeare & Company and, as the director recollects, “when I heard that John Douglas Thompson was involved, I knew it would work and could be meaningful.” Although Edelstein had never worked with Thompson before, he says “I had been a fan of Jack’s (Thompson) for years.” Thompson, of course, is a long-time audience favorite at the Lenox-based company.

Edelstein subsequently signed on as director and the team proceeded to further explore Armstrong’s life, played with the play’s structure and adjusted the script accordingly. An essential component of the play is the inclusion of the character of Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s long-time white manager with probable gangland ties, who did not always represent Armstrong’s best interests. Thompson portrays Glaser as well, Edelstein says, explaining that “Jack’s an actor first and foremost. There is no issue with him playing a black character or a white character, but just being in service to the script.” The relationship between Satchmo and his manager, Edelstein adds, “is one of the more exciting aspects of the play, as Jack ably handles the transitions between the two characters.” Plus, he indicates, “the play would be much less interesting if Jack just played Satchmo all evening.”p

Actually, Thompson plays three characters in the show, the third being jazz legend Miles Davis. “Davis was initially talked about in the show,” Edelstein explains, referring to the more activist Davis’s public criticism of Armstrong’s unwillingness to lend his name and stature to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Edelstein suggested to Teachout during rehearsals one day that the play needed a third character—meaning Davis—and the playwright understood immediately. “Miles is an exciting character to bring onto the stage,” Edelstein explains, “to complete the triangle on race and to explore Armstrong’s place in African-American history.”

According to Edelstein, the play is doing quite well in its run at the Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street, the same theatre where Edelstein and Long Wharf re-staged last year their well-received production of Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev,” which ran for nearly a year. Shakespeare & Company is one of the major producers of the New York engagement of “Satchmo."

And indeed the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times’ Andy Webster wrote that “as directed by Gordon Edelstein, Mr. Thompson offers dazzling arias, at one point toggling between Armstrong and Glaser in a brilliant pyrotechnic display. By the show’s end, you sense the profound fortitude that lay beneath the avuncular surface of this giant, and you are newly appreciative of his singular place in history.”

Jason Fitzgerald of the Village Voice wrote that “Thompson’s rendition is sensitive and layered, presenting a man who is proud, naïve, passionate, and surprisingly self-aware. Casually inhabiting his crooked, aged gait, except when snapping into Glaser’s straight-backed stride, Thompson makes music without playing a note. The chief pleasure of ‘Satchmo,’ under Gordon Edelstein’s gentle direction, is to enjoy the exhumation of Armstrong’s one-of-a-kind charm.”

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” is enjoying an open-ended run at the Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street in New York. For information and tickets, visit the show’s website at www.satchmonyc.com or call Telecharge at 212.239.6200.

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