NY CRITIC TERRY TEACHOUT’S BIO PLAY EXPLORES LOUIS ARMSTRONG TRIUMPHS AND RACISM CHALLENGES
"What he does is real, and true, and honest, and simple, and even noble. Every time this man puts his trumpet to his lips, even if only to practice three notes, he does it with his whole soul." Leonard Bernstein on Louis Armstrong. The American Conservatory Theater opens the new year with Terry Teachout’s powerful one-man show SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF on their Geary Stage through February 7th. It is 1971 and “Satchmo” Armstrong is preparing for what will be his final performance at the Waldorf-Astoria. Directed by Gordon Edelstein the 90 minute tour de force performance by John Douglas Thompson is sure to be the highlight of A.C.T.’s current season. He is breathtaking playing the world's greatest trumpet player.
Teachout, a Wall Street Journal’s theatre critic, has written his first play that has the theatrical community paying avid attention to his crossover past the curtain. He wrote the play after writing the biography “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” *Listening to the audio journals recorded by Armstrong, Teachout recalls in the program, introduced him to the private side of the affable, beaming performer: an Armstrong who “swore like a trooper and knew how to hold a grudge.” Teachout's brilliant one-man show invites us to listen in to the thoughts of Armstrong, at the end of his colorful career. Teachout has penned a first rate biography that presents a personal account of the man with the horn, that includes all this “Mother F’s”, many wives and weed smoking days.
Louis Armstrong is widely remembered as the, iconic singer of classics like “Hello Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World." But faithful fans are often more interested in the artist history, the musical genius who helped usher in a new form of jazz, setting the bar for the trumpet solo. As Thompson enters stage left as the elder Satchmo, he staggers straight for an oxygen tank, whipping his forehead and complaining about his elevator ride as he hobbles across set designer, Lee Savage’s, perfect designed dressing room. Once the 69 year old icon catches his breath, he serenades the audience with stories from his early years in that irresistible Satchmo voice. It is a bittersweet portrayal of a man covering two generations: from the pre Civil Rights era, and later years, when his behavior was criticized as Uncle Tom-ish by his peers:Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
Thompson plays Davis in a few stories, but it is no more than an impersonation, and while Davis' Uncle Tom accusation hurts Armstrong, it’s not what drives this production. That would be Armstrong’s long time agent of 40 years, Joe Glaser. Glaser, who made a fortune off the musician, died at an early age and left Satchmo nothing in his will. It is the main downside to Armstrong's friendships with whites that he points out to the very white sold out opening night house. "White people don't stop coming to see me play," having just performed for a crowd so white they resembled a "carton of eggs." Then, pointing at the sold out crowd at the Geary Theatre, "And it doesn't look like they ever will." He also tells the story about his 30 year friendship with Bing Crosby, who never invited him over to his home, and neither did Glaser. Armstrong also tells wonderful stories of his mentor, Joe "King" Oliver and of his love for his wife, Lucy.
Johnson transforms into Glaser with ease as Kevin Adam's light design captures his character changes with some easy body language. Glaser tells the other side of working with the legend, and how the mob influence for the most part created Armstrong's career. The lovable Satchmo looks back at both his success and racism he faced, including not being allowed into diners and eating in the restaurant kitchens. Teachout mentions the era’s race issues, yet cleverly avoids writing a drama about race. The relationship with Glaser is the arch of the play, yet Armstrong is the memory.
I wanted to listen to more music from the man, and at times Thompson comes close to working that prop Trumpet, but John Gromada’s sound design, gives us brief sound samples of Louis doing what he does best like “West End Blues,”. Satchmo at the Waldorf is an excellent production. The sold out opening night audience was on their feet the moment Louis says he is on his way out. Thompson's marvelous performance as this brilliant musician is the reason to see this one man show. He's an actor who will bring you to tears. SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF is sure sell out for A.C.T. winter season, it is moving, funny at times and John Douglas Thompson pulls you into Satchmo’s final days and Armstrong's love for the music and life.
AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER PRESENTS
TERRY TEACHOUT’S ACCLAIMED ONE-MAN SHOW
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF
Starring OBIE and Tony Award winner
John Douglas Thompson
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater 415 Geary St., San Francisco
January 13–February 7, 2016
Single tickets (ranging from $20–$105) are available at the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or online at www.act-sf.org.
Ticket prices are subject to change without notice.
Photo’s by T. Charles Erickson
*Teachout's quote LA TIMES