Satchmo at the Waldorf
By Terry Teachout. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Through Nov. 4 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org
Not laughing or blowing his treasured trumpet. The great Louis Armstrong, age 70, walks into his hotel room wizened and wheezing, reaching for an oxygen tank.
The new play Satchmo at the Waldorf lets you see the great Louis Armstrong — and, not incidentally, acclaimed actor John Douglas Thompson — as you've never seen them before.
In terms of Armstrong, that means a late-in-life, warts-and-all portrayal, which opens with the septuagenarian trumpeter confessing the blues: "I shit myself tonight. Right back there in the elevator, swear to God. Lucille and me, we was coming down from the room 'fore the show, all dressed up and ready to go, and then she wrinkle up her nose."
Louis' wife Lucille is mentioned frequently, but the real relationship being plumbed here is the one between Armstrong and his longtime manager Joe Glaser — also played by Thompson, with no more onstage prep for these shifts between the ever-onstage black musician and his behind-the-scenes white Jewish taskmaster than a subtle change in the lighting.
Instrumental Louis Armstrong recordings (notably "West End Blues") are used to fuel stories and to underscore the musician's feelings as he recounts his triumphs. Thompson holds a trumpet occasionally, but doesn't lift it to his lips. He doesn't have to. He finds the staccato rhythms and high-strung notes in Armstrong's life and plays them through his voice and body, as a jittery, tense, excitable yet endearing blowhard who craves mirth and melody.
For Thompson, a show like this is not just a change from Shakespearean roles and large-cast productions. It's an opportunity to play not just an African-American jazz legend but two of them: Miles Davis also appears for a few lines, to represent the backlash that Armstrong felt from modern jazz upstarts of the 1950s and '60s. But it's the actor's essaying of the least-known character in this drama, Joe Glaser, that really kills. The short, sharp delivery of Glaser's indignant, superior and often hate-filled rants are a clever variation on the similarly rhythmic yet more palatable pronouncements of Armstrong. Thompson plays both men like a virtuoso. Both men swear like sailors, or like the gangsters they've both associated with. More to the point, they swear like people in the music industry. But when Armstrong curses, it feels a part of his underclass upbringing, as when he freely admits his mother was a prostitute. When Glaser cuts loose with the saucy language, it's to demean others, cut them down to size.
The last couple of decades of Louis Armstrong's life has only just begun to be satisfyingly chronicled, in books such as What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years by Ricky Riccardi and of course in Terry Teachout's own Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, from which this script is largely drawn. (On page 369 of Pops, Teachout duly chronicles the Waldorf gigs: "He soiled himself on the elevator before one show and had to return to his suite and change clothes.")
Will Long Wharf audiences (and New Haven theatergoers fresh from seeing the tour of Jersey Boys at the Shubert) accept this leap from ingratiating upbeat bio-musical tribute to a despondent solo bout of wordplay from characters who spew so many derogatory slang words for African-Americans that the n-word gets lost in the mix?
The Long Wharf audiences that flocked to recent high-spirited mainstage productions of Ella (the rousing biomusical about Ella Fitzgerald) and Ain't Misbehavin' (the upbeat cabaret revue devoted to Fats Waller) might perhaps need an added step between their idealized vision of the internationally beloved entertainer Satchmo and this dour portrait of a man who's spent half a century on the road (playing 300 dates a year, at Glaser's insistence, for much of that time) and who is only just getting a chance to reflect on what he might have missed.
But longtime Long Wharfgoers have also seen the desultory, regret-filled Billie Holiday monologue Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. They've seen the quick-change, multi-character, mood-shifting workouts of Anna Deavere Smith, whose bursts of anecdotes and scene-shifting blackouts in shows such as Let Me Down Easy bear a structural similarity to Teachout's Satchmo script. On Stage II — where Satchmo at the Waldorf opens the 2012-13 Long Wharf season while the summer-long mainstage renovations are being wrapped up — Long Wharf audiences have seen Brian Dennehy in two dark, monologue-driven multi-voiced works of late-life introspection and despair, Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (which, like Satchmo at the Waldorf, co-stars a reel-to-reel tape machine) and Eugene O'Neill's Hughie (which, like Satchmo at the Waldorf, is set in a hotel). Those are the truer kin of this dark, realistic, and remarkable interpretation of a life — several lives, in fact — during a turbulent social and cultural time in our nation's history. This admirable exercise in anguished self-analysis is as boldly and brassily played as its hot and jazzy subject.