June 19, 2013
Written by Joanne Greco Rochman
Thursday, 18 October 2012 13:03
For a longtime jazz aficionado, it is disappointing to come upon a play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf” (now at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven) about the great Louis Armstrong that at best minimizes his music to background sound. Satchmo without his music is like a cloudy night without moon or stars. Sure we want to learn about the man behind the music. We want to know what gave him such joie de vivre that he poured his heart and soul into his horn, but not at the exclusion of what made him great to begin with.
Thank goodness John Douglas Thompson is such an outstanding actor. His portrayal of Satchmo is about as good as it can get based on the lackluster script written by Terry Teachout, a jazz and theater critic for the Wall Street Journal. Authenticity is great, and Teachout no doubt got all the information straight from the Armstrong tapes, but without conflict and drama, keep the story in print and file it under biography. However, in defense of biographies, there are plenty of biographies written with a lot more conflict and drama than is apparent in this production.
The New Orleans-born musician’s story takes place backstage at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Armstrong recalls the journey that brought him to this highly regarded stage. He decides to tape the recollections of his life. Therefore on stage there is a tape recorder that runs almost non-stop, except for the few moments when Armstrong doesn’t want to put on tape some of his less than charitable comments.
He talks about his mother, a whore, his father, who left the family scene the day Armstrong was born, and he talks passionately about the civil rights movement and how so many blacks considered Armstrong an Uncle Tom, a claim he vehemently denies.
If it weren’t for the memorable performance of John Douglas Thompson, the show would not hold the audience’s attention for as long as it did. Douglas not only takes on the persona of Armstrong but Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser as well. He performs both roles with passion.
What is actually distracting from his performance is the tacky way the lights and background scenery are used to emphasize when Thompson is Armstrong or Glaser. Rule of thumb in the theater, don’t underestimate the audience. We get it. In spite of Thompson’s one-man triumph, this production could have benefitted from at least one other actor and Armstrong’s music definitely needs to be more prominent, especially since there is so little conflict in this play.
What there is plenty of in this play is Armstrong’s use of foul expletives. People who are turned off by vulgar language will want to steer clear of this show. What is so surprising is that with a man who grew up with a mother who was a whore and whose father took off on the day Armstrong was born there should be a lot more excitement and conflict in this play. Surely, there was in this great vocalist’s and trumpeter’s life. This show plays through Nov. 4 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Box office: 203-787-4282.
|< Prev||Next >|