August 25, 2012 matinee performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf at Shakespeare and Co. is a STUNNING production, one of the most exciting new plays to have premiered in a challenging Berkshire summer season. John Douglas Thompson, the play begins as solo performance. The time is March 1971 and Louis Armstrong, greatest jazz musician of the 20th century, is backstage at the Waldorf preparing for what may be his last performance. The man is aged and ill. As he sinks into a chair, he puts reaches not for his golden horn but gropes for his oxygen inhaler. Gradually, talking to himself he copes with his infirmities.
Thompson is Armstrong. And then, without warning he becomes Joe Glaser, his mob-connected manager, and tone and especially language with the F word entangled in most sentences and his over-bearing personality smashing through, rule the stage. Thompson is suddenly taller, dominating.
Then just as suddenly Glaser is gone. But one has feeling of two men on stzage. Yet on the stage is only Armstrong, limping, pill taking, trying to cope with the costume change required for the next Waldorf “set” for which he must leave at the end of this ninety minute play, which no longer seems just a play but an action in which we are involved. And to further complicate, but clearly easy to follow, a third character, Miles Davis appears on stage, briefly.
Armstrong does not play his golden horn. This is not a musical play in that sense, although it is a very musical play. One that manages to sweep us into Armstrong and the music with which he dominated his generation.
The simple set on which this magic takes place is the thrust stage, the only scenery the long back-wall mirror, the light bulbs that define it indicating character shifts. Various little groups of furniture compose the acting area. Simple but striking.
Thompson is so dynamically each character he assumes, one is at loss to find magic words to define his talent. Whatever it is, it is so mesmerizing that even if some audience members may feel shocked by language, or feel they should be, the final applause was so rapid that the audience was standing by the time the lights were back on.
This is an unusual play. About Louis Armstong. Some come because they at least remember he recorded Hello Dolly. Some come because they admire Thompson the actor. Whatever, the stage is steeped in talent. Love it or hate it. The experience is well worth it.