Louis Armstrong, arguably the first jazz superstar, achieved world-wide fame as a trumpet player, composer, singer, occasional actor. Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout (best known as The Wall Street Journal’s theatre critic) presents the Louis Armstrong the public didn’t know, and Mosaic Theater Company of DC and Craig Wallace provide a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the great musician.
This portrait of Satchmo (Armstrong’s favorite nickname, short for the moniker Satchelmouth, picked up in childhood) is set backstage at the Waldorf Astoria in 1971. The gig would be Armstrong’s last public performance before he died of a heart attack that summer. Thus we see Armstrong at the start as he stumbles from the stage to an oxygen tank in his dressing room.
Also from the start we see that the genial, smiling image of Armstrong is going to be shattered with salty language and off-color stories as Armstrong reflects on his life’s story, from being born the son of a New Orleans prostitute through growing jazz, and then mainstream, stardom.
Satchmo at the Waldorf is based on Teachout’s 2009 biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. The play draws upon Armstrong’s own words, often tape recordings by the man himself, which he used to analyze his performances and record his thoughts. The script rings with an authenticity that provides a real look into Armstrong, complete with opinions and some regrets about his musical career and race relations.
This Armstrong is a lion in winter, his pride wounded over his perceived betrayal by his long-time manager Joe Glaser and criticism from younger jazz players, such as Miles Davis. Teachout’s play has Craig Wallace shift between all three characters.
Wallace gives a sensational performance, playing each of the men with zest and personality. Yet while he affects Armstrong’s broad smile and familiar raspy voice, his portrayals are powerful impressions instead of slavish imitations.
Director Eleanor Holdridge helps Wallace achieve a rhythm that holds the audience spellbound. Both Armstrong and Glaser were complicated men, and the story builds in intensity as it reveals their inner personalities and views of each other. Through it all Armstrong maintains an optimistic view of life despite suffering through decades of mistreatment and racial injustice.
Glaser, a fast-talking, Caucasian Jew with mob connections, served as Armstrong’s manager for 40 years. He was a tough man who had almost total control over Armstrong’s career, advising him to put aside high C notes and scat singing for a more accessible swing style headlining a smaller group and singing mainstream songs, advice that drove Armstrong to achieve great success.
Satchmo at the Waldorf
Extended! Must close October 2, 2016
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Armstrong trusted Glaser and treated him almost like a father (although he notes that neither Glaser nor celebrity friends like Bing Crosby would ever invite him into their homes). However, Glaser also built a booking business off of his star client’s success, yet failed to leave Armstrong a piece of that business when he died.
Armstrong’s mainstream success led to resentment by young jazz musicians. Armstrong was seen by some as an “Uncle Tom” and a clown who did not adequately support the civil rights movement, according to the Miles Davis character. Armstrong is hurt by the fact that he lost support from black audiences as he achieved popular success through songs like “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly” (a song that kicked the Beatles from the number one position on the pop charts but that Armstrong disdained).
The story plays out on a convincing dressing room set designed by Andrew Cohen and through occasional visits to the sides of the stage. The production’s artistic team provides deft touches that augment the atmosphere of the play.
Satchmo at the Waldorf provides only glimpses of his music (mostly through a solo in “West End Blues”), his fame, and his celebrity friendships. It tantalizes the audience, leaving us wanting to know more.
Ultimately Louis Armstrong was an entertainer who liked to bring joy and happiness to his audiences. Mosaic Theater Company’s Satchmo at the Waldorf accomplishes the same with a production that both charms and educates us about one of the most famous show business figures of the 20th century.
Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Starring Craig Wallace. Setting: Andrew Cohen. Lighting: Alberto Segarra. Costumes: Brandee Mathies. Sound: Christopher Baine. Properties: Timothy Jones. Technical Director: William M. Woodard. Stage Manager: Jeanette Buck. Presented by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.