Louis Armstrong is likely the first black man that many white Americans loved back in the day. A superb one man show reveals the man behind the image.
In a bravura performance, John Douglas Thompson plays Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, his manager Jon Glaser and the mercurial Miles Davis. The effect of watching Thompson come into Armstrong’s dressing room after one of the trumpeter’s final performances and begin a monologue with the unseen audience is mesmerizing. When the lighting switches, and Thompson stands erect as the mobbed up manager, we begin to hear another facet of the pair’s relationship. Less frequently, the lighting shifts to a tight orangey purple spotlight and Thompson slips into Davis’ raspy delivery. The younger trumpeter belittled the elder trumpeter for playing to a white audience with non-jazz hits like ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘Wonderful World.’
But Armstrong slowly reveals that all he wants is to make people smile, and what’s so bad about that? After a hard scrabble upbringing in New Orleans, Armstrong essentially established jazz as a true American art form. Decades later he was caught by surprise by the success of ‘Hello Dolly’ but he denied neither the financial proceeds nor the crowd warmth he collected.
The production went through some prior iterations, but the current production is a crisp 90 minutes. It is testament writer Terry Teachout and director Gordon Edelstein that Armstrong’s life is sufficiently fleshed out as we see him backstage in 1971, a few months before his death. Teachout is a theatre critic and the author of an acclaimed biography of Armstrong. In the production notes, Teachout admits the conundrum of being on the other side of the stage, but his dialogue rings true.