For some time I’ve read effusive descriptions of John Douglas Thompson’s acting. They are all true—he is an incredible talent. In SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF, now in a brief run at the Wilma Theater, Thompson brilliantly portrays Louis Armstrong, the musician’s hard-nosed talent manager, and other characters, switching diction and mannerism so completely that he seems to inhabit different bodies with each change. Adopting the pained gait and crouch of an aging Armstrong, Thompson so embodies the entertainer from the streets of “Storyville,” New Orleans, that you feel if he started playing the trumpet, the musician’s sweet tones would come out.
Armstrong was a virtuoso horn player and vocalist, whose innovative stylings revolutionized jazz and broke barriers for generations of black performers. But as he recounts his past in the dressing room of the Waldorf Astoria a few months before his death, the old entertainer is bittersweet.
Written by Wall Street Journal theater critic and Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, SATCHMO centers around the musician’s relationship with his white, mob-connected manager, Joe Glaser (who Thompson also portrays with convincing aplomb). Glaser helped guide and build Armstrong’s career, and the two held great mutual respect. (“I’m you and you’re me, Louis.”) But years after Glaser’s death, Armstrong is resentful that he was short-changed in Glaser‘s will.
Teachout doesn’t quite succeed in melding this story with Armstrong’s other major internal conflict. Backstage, the musician bristles at accusations of insincerity from other black performers, who see his ever-happy entertaining style as an unwelcome artifact from an earlier era of race relations. Thompson has several excellent—yet too brief—scenes as Miles Davis, who praises Armstrong’s music and profound influence but resents his deferential demeanor.
Although flattered by Thompson’s stellar performance (directed by Gordon Edelstein), Teachout’s script bubbles with natural language and profanity (from the second word on), and credibly translates the biographer’s insights onto the stage. But telling a historical narrative requires choosing which stories to tell. Making his white manager so critical to Armstrong’s career in a story infused with racial politics is a questionable choice on Teachout’s part. Critically, the play climaxes with the audience able to excuse some of Glaser’s actions. In the biography, however, Teachout is more circumspect about the manager’s motives, stating “No one will ever know for sure” and recounting different reasons for the managers alleged perfidy (which is itself perhaps overstated in the script).
But any qualms with this strong piece come only in post-show analysis. During the play, the audience is captivated by Teachout’s keen grasp of speech and personality and Thompson’s vivifying portrayals. The acting performance is enchanting; Philadelphia stages are unlikely to see better this season. November 16–December 2, 2012, wilmatheater.org.