Satchmo at the Waldorfby Terry Teachout. Directed by Gordon Edelstein.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"If I can’t play anymore. . .who am I?"
Jazz is a career journey that takes a man down many dark streets. At the age of seventy Louis Armstrong in his glamorous dressing room at the Waldorf -Astoria Hotel finishes his last set of the night with a session of remembrance that brings to light all that haunts him in his latter days. His fourth marriage has brought him some joy but even that relationship now leaves him feeling deserted as does his long-standing arrangement with his manager Joe Glaser. Glaser’s death and his seeming betrayal of their long friendship is the demon that continually creeps into Satchmo’s conscious mind in this new one-man play at Shakespeare and Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse.
Jazz, even in Armstrong’s subtle hands, is not always an accessible music. Too many want to grasp it and can’t. That sense of remove from the mainstream is part of the journey that Glaser forces upon his client and friend and even though he is achieving a number one hit, ousting the Beatles from the top spot, with "Hello, Dolly!" Armstrong cannot seem to remember the tune. "It’s really not a very good song," he says of the piece that moves his career into topnotch success, even bringing him a guest spot with Barbra Streisand in the film version of the show.
It is the death of Glaser - who has guided Louis and moved him along from obscure trumpet player in Chicago to movie, recording and television star, from Harlem clubs to the Waldorf - that opens the wounds that won’t heal. Armstrong has anticipated a piece of the pie he has helped to create and instead finds himself shunted aside for a seeming white cohort of the white manager who the musician has trusted for thirty years. Playwright Terry Teachout exposes truths about this relationship that were probably never revealed to the musician himself. What we know enlightens us to the true tune of tragedy: betrayal through the lack of understanding.
Gordon Edelstein has created a riveting picture of the elderly jazzman with the unyielding heart and mind of the actor John Douglas Thompson who plays Armstrong, Glaser and the later jazz fixture Miles Davis. Edelstein moves his actor into and out of the three characters with light and shadow, altering the space in our eyes and the man at the center of the lights that illumine each of them. He has worked with his actor to create a recognizable persona in an instant. He has clearly gotten into the deepest parts of each one to reveal with a look, a gesture, a word carefully chosen from the lexicon of street language, the inner core of each of them.
Thompson, a master at character, proven over and over with this company in the past half dozen years, pulls each of his men out of the darkness of the music that gently supports the scenes. With vocal agility, facial flexibility and the varied postures that represent each of the three Thompson makes us know instantly whose voice, whose thoughts and expressive utterances we are being given.
His Miles Davis is a killer disguised as a lover of music. There is a violence in this man that Teachout and Thompson bring to the fore with two short monologues and a distinct light change. He chills to the bone any white member of the audience as he expresses his complete contempt for what his white audiences bring to his music.
A hair’s breath later it is Armstrong himself crying out against his own people for deserting him at this downtown boite and leaving him at the mercy of a white audience that so clearly adores him. He feels the condemnation of an entire race for his accessibility, that flaw that made him such an international star and such a remarkable proponent of all things American when he went overseas.
Glaser is a force to be reckoned with, a man so vulgar and so mean that when it is made clear that he does feel affection and a remarkable loyalty to his client and friend there is no salvation for him as he signs away his friendship.
All three men are excellent portraits played to the enth degree by a consummate actor. This is a play that is buoyed up by its player for there are weaknesses in the script, things that are not made clear to the main character who might suffer less for the knowledge denied him. We want to enjoy the man as much as we have enjoyed the music he brought and left behind him to enthrall us. We are given the bitterness at the cost of the joy for even these moments of glory that we are allowed to witness in Teachout’s script are moments only and not sustainable as written.
Lee Savage’s concept of a star dressing room at one New York City’s most momentous hotels is a delight: large, spacious with enough mirrors and lights to prepare an entire company of players. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes somehow work for all three men as dressed by a single actor. Matthew Adelson has done some brilliant work with lights bringing about the character transitions in different ways yet ways that are always crystal clear. John Gromada’s sound tracks range from the up-front and present variety to the soft, half-heard memory pieces that broaden the resonance of thoughts.
This is a performance that may shock you with its graphic language and sexual innuendo (film rated R, this play) and may sadden you just a bit as a great star is reduced to a little man in the hands of a very tall actor. It may also enthrall you as the language becomes something you no longer hear as graphic and hostile having heard it so much, so soon and so often. Teachout’s out-there script is perfectly realistic for people in this end of the music industry and the portrayals would never seem right in a quasi-Noel Coward lingo anyway.
For Satchmo there is a need for revelation in language, history and humanity. For the audience there is the same need in finding the man. There is nothing wrong here that an altered mind-set on the part of the audience wouldn’t cure. It’s the afterglow, when the costumes have been changed and the music packed away for the night, when the wife awaits in a suite above and the man remembers that, for him, love may be all there is, that this play takes leave of the stage and the stage holds its image for a long, long while. We may finally know the reason for that dark passage of music in the song "It’s a Wonderful World."
John Douglas Thompson as Satchmo; photo: Kevin Sprague
Thompson as Miles Davis; photo: Kevin Sprague
Satchmo at the Waldorf; photo: Kevin Sprague
Satchmo at the Waldorf plays through September 16 at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare and Company at 70 Kembla Street in Lennox, Massachusetts. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or visit their website at www.shakespeare.org.