On the face of it, John Douglas Thompson might not be anyone's first choice to portray Louis Armstrong, especially in the twilight of his career. But the supremely talented actor proves to be more than up for the task in the captivating one-man show Satchmo at the Waldorf at the Long Wharf Theatre, under Gordon Edelstein's taut direction.
As the author of Pops, a 2009 biography based on a previously unmined cache of hundreds of hours of audiotaped reminiscences that Armstrong recorded after hours, it's no surprise that playwright Terry Teachout (best known as the theater critic for The Wall Street Journal) knows his subject inside and out. And with this gripping script, he gives us the complex, accomplished man behind the famous grin.
In Satchmo, Teachout captures the 70-year-old jazz legend in 1971 when his career was peaking in terms of popular acclaim, but he was wracked with regrets and resentment. While Armstrong's blindingly broad smile wasn't exactly a mask, it was but one facet of a complicated man: a musical genius who vaulted from New Orleans' impoverished, vice-racked Storyville to international acclaim by virtue of sheer talent.
True, Armstrong got a boost along the way – a guarantee of safe passage through the mobbed-up milieu of jazz clubs – from his long-time manager Joe Glaser. Armstrong also got a rude lesson regarding loyalty and quid pro quo when Glaser's will excluded him from the business built on his back after their 40-year collaboration came to an end.
Thompson plays both roles, alternating with such lightning speed and visceral authenticity that the cued lighting changes (skillfully designed by Stephen Strawbridge) are practically superfluous. Watching Thompson as Armstrong gingerly flatfoot his way around his dressing room, you feel the ache in every joint and the pain that pervades a mind riddled with bitterness.
As Glaser, however, Thompson is tight-jawed, slick, and driven. In addition, Thompson briefly assumes an additional role -- that of jazz legend Miles Davis, who, with the cold affect of an entitled intellectual, dismisses his barrier-breaking forebear as a racial traitor.
Like Armstrong himself, Thompson's work in Satchmo at the Waldorf is often a miracle to behold.