Leave it to an esteemed theater critic--Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal no less--to come up with a gripping, intelligent new play that turns out to be one of the most riveting productions of the summer season. After years of incisive often biting analysis, he certainly was taking a public risk by seeing if he could actually play in the big leagues with those he reviewed.
In "Satchmo at the Waldorf," now in its world premiere at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass., Teachout takes on another challenge. His play is one of those one-person, biographical works, which can be excruciatingly boring (Ben Kingsley's take on Rudyard Kipling comes to mind) or genuinely exciting, depending on the quality of the writing and production than on the specific historical figure. Also having two in one season at S & Co. is also a risk, with the generally well-reviewed "Cassandra Speaks," based on the life of famed war correspondent Dorothy Thompson, still in repertory there.
But not to worry. Teachout's play happens to be in some of the best hands possible. Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of New Haven's Long Wharf Theater, is the expert director at the helm, and remarkable John Douglas Thompson, one of America's foremost Shakespearean actors and a S & Co. stalwart, is giving an extraordinary three-pronged performance as not only title character Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, arguably the best and most influential jazz musician of the last century, but also as the trumpeter-singer's long-time manager, Joe Glaser, as well as contemporary jazz legend Miles Davis.
At first it seems like an awkward device to have the actor playing three parts, but as the play progresses the inclusion of the other two characters adds dimension and perspective not only to Armstrong's character but indeed to his career, by illuminating the challenges, barriers and changing musical tastes that all impacted Armstrong's rise and ongoing fame. Teachout is one of the pre-eminent experts on Satchmo's career, being the author of the comprehensive 2009 biography "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong."
In fact, the playwright reveals in an author's note in the show's program that the character of Davis was added only after rehearsals began in Lenox. And though Davis only appears two times during the evening, he describes the changes in jazz that were occurring during the latter part of Armstrong's career that drastically changed the racial composition of Satchmo's audience. Davis's comments, however, make Armstrong's resilience and popularity at least among white Americans all the more amazing.
Thompson does not go in for a direct impersonation of Armstrong, as he is too tall and too young for the musician we are meeting at age 70 at the end of his career. Instead, Thompson offers a suggestion of the man, only occasionally opening his mouth or widening his eyes in Armstrong's exaggerated style. He also captures some of Satchmo's easily-recognizable speech cadences, along with intimations of the scratchy gravelly voice one recalls from his recordings of "Hello Dolly" and "It's a Wonderful World," from which we get a small but welcome sampling. Thompson's interpretation subtly grows as you gradually come to feel as if you are in the presence of Pops himself, immediately following a set at New York's Waldorf-Astoria.
Teachout does decide to open the play with a gut-punch to the audience as Armstrong reveals in the play's very first line that on the way down to the show in the elevator with his wife Lucille, he has soiled himself (Armstrong's description is a bit more graphic). More shocking is the natural manner in which he shares the news; this has obviously become a not-unexpected occurrence. And as the lights go up on the vivid, detailed dressing room set designed by Lee Savage, we see the oxygen tank that has also become one of the musician's constant companions.
As justification for these reminiscences, Teachout has Armstrong recording his memories into a reel to reel tape recorder in preparation for a memoir that was actually published over ten years after his death. Armstrong is also quite revealing in those recordings, using language and expletives that he has been careful not use in his carefully cultivated public persona. As a result, the playwright is able to include with high dramatic impact key moments from the performer's life, from his birth into poverty in New Orleans to his early interest in music through his migration to Chicago where he became in in-demand musicians through the development of a solo career. It is in Prohibition-era Chicago where he first gets into trouble with organized crime and the likes of Dutch Schulz and Al Capone and has to turn to the connected Joe Glaser to extract him from their control and allow him to grow his career in New York City.
Although initially jarring, Thompson morphs easily and splendidly into Glaser, who becomes Armstrong's life-long manager through a simple handshake deal and ultimately best friend. Thompson smoothly hints at the man's beginnings in the rough and tumble Windy City, while more openly expressing his affection and concern for his client and his acumen as a savvy manager. Savage's set, with the help of Matthew Adelson's lighting, morphs similarly during such transitions, with the dressing room's three large bulb-framed mirrors turning into office windows looking over a cityscape many stories below.
On at least two occasions, Thompson embraces the cool, loose sophistication of Miles Davis, encountered in a pinpoint of light amidst a larger sea of darkness, to report on accusations that Armstrong was an "Uncle Tom" who lived at a comfortable distance from the civil rights movement. But as Teachout rightly points out in one of the evening's high points, the treatment of the black students in Little Rock in the mid-1950's indeed provoked an angry public response from Armstrong that not only accused President Eisenhower of being a coward but led to Armstrong dropping out of a State Department sponsored goodwill tour of Russia.
Teachout is also upfront about Armstrong's affection for weed which got him into situations from which Glaser would need to extricate him, as well as Armstrong's profound disappointment upon learning that Glaser did not leave him any portion of the thriving artists' management business that Armstrong's presence had helped build. We find out why in a sobering scene that reminds that once the mob gets its involved in a business, it never really leaves.
Edelstein has carefully plotted out movement and action around the set so that the 90-minute intermissionless production sustains interest every step of the way. He manages the transitions between characters quite smoothly and moves back and forth between memories and the dressing room with ease. Even without reading Teachout's author's note, it seems obvious that this work has represented a genuine collaboration between the playwright, director and actor. One can feel the intensity of the process and see how it explodes on the stage.
As one of the most influential artists--jazz or otherwise--of the last century, Louis Armstrong certainly deserved the special attention that this production affords his legacy. It also underlines the essential gentleness and perhaps naivete of a man who, in the course of four wives and a procession of albums, film roles and television guest appearances, merely wanted to be able to play his music some 300 days a year. That he was able to do so up until the final years of his career is testament to the singular character that "Satchmo at the Waldorf" so memorably depicts.
"Satchmo at the Waldorf" plays at Shakespeare and Company through September 16, from where it will next proceed to New Haven's Long Wharf Theater. For tickets for the S & Co run, call the box office at 413.637.3353 or visit the Shakespeare & Company website at www.shakespeare.org.