“Satchmo at the Waldorf” by Terry Teachout at Long Wharf Theatre

by Zander Opper

            “Satchmo at the Waldorf” by Terry Teachout at Long Wharf Theatre is, above all, a stunning showcase for John Douglas Thompson.  Playing Louis Armstrong (who often went by the nickname Satchmo) during the time of his final public performance in 1971, Thompson is riveting from the first words he utters onstage.  Though he never actually plays the trumpet during this 90 minute one-man play, he personifies Louis Armstrong completely to the point where the actor and the man he is playing blur together; in other words he IS Louis Armstrong.  Playwright Terry Teachout (who happens to be the astute theatre critic for The Wall Street Journal and whose first play this is) has added an additional layer to the evening by having Thompson also play Louis Armstrong’s white manager, Joe Glaser, at key points during the show with the help of a change of lighting onstage and a change of accent.  Consequently, Thompson can switch between the two characters throughout the play and the effect is dazzling, for, when Thompson is playing Joe Glaser, he somehow manages to look completely different.  If for no other reason, “Satchmo at the Waldorf” would rank as a must-see just to see John Douglas Thompson’s tour de force performance.

Unfortunately, aside from the consummate actor at its center, “Satchmo at the Waldorf” as a whole is never quite as satisfying as one keeps hoping that it will become.  One major problem is that the language used during much of the show is so excessively foul that it is often hard to warm to the play.  While the use of such language is nothing new (onstage, at the movies, or pretty much anywhere else), and there are signs everywhere when you walk into the theatre that “Satchmo” is strictly for “mature audiences,” playwright Terry Teachout simply relies too much on offensive language to hang his play on.  To Teachout’s credit, the evening does improve as it goes along (and one does gradually get used to the language being used), but, at least to this reviewer, the damage is done and “Satchmo” as a whole never quite recovers.

Fortunately, John Douglas Thompson is able to consistently shine even as the play, at times, is letting him down.  It should also be stated that, in addition to Thompson, a virtue of “Satchmo” is that director Gordon Edelstein has assembled a good-looking production, with the basic set (by Lee Savage) being the backstage dressing room of Louis Armstrong.  And lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge has done wonders with the carefully choreographed lighting changes that allow Thompson to switch from Louis Armstrong to manager Joe Glaser.  Indeed, the most breathtaking moment in the play is when Thompson, within a space of a single sentence, goes from being Armstrong to being Glaser and then back again just by the employment of split-second lighting cues and Thompson assuming different ways of standing and changing the cadences of his speech.

When one is watching in awe at the brilliance of John Douglas Thompson centerstage throughout the show’s 90 minutes, one keeps wanting the play itself to be as dazzling as its star.  But, except for some lovely passages in the second half of the show that reveal the person Louis Armstrong was behind the scenes, when not singing “Hello Dolly!” (a song Armstrong was surprisingly quite critical of) to his eager audiences or blowing on his trumpet as only he could, “Satchmo at the Waldorf” too often comes up short.  It should be stated that the audience around me (including my companion) seemed to embrace and love the play much more than I did, so it could be a matter of taste.  On balance, I recommend “Satchmo at the Waldorf” simply to see John Douglas Thompson’s knockout performance, for a star showcase like this doesn’t come around very often, but when it does, it must be savored.  Tickets for the show (which will be running until November 11th) can be ordered by calling (203) 787-4282 or by going to http://www.longwharf.org.

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