Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Satchmo at the Waldorf was written by Wall Street Journal theatre critic and Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout. Armstrong is depicted in a valiant performance by John Douglas Thompson who captures the artist's hot-blooded, extreme feelings, as well as his well-known cackle.
Louis is first seen entering his dressing room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York (Lee Savage has designed a beautiful detailed set of the suite) in 1971. He has just completed his gig in the posh Empire Room of the hotel. He grumbles, "I shit myself tonight" and starts to breath into an oxygen mask. You can see that getting old isn't easy. This will be his last performance. Louis proceeds to tell the story of his life and how he credits his time in a reformatory as a boy for teaching him life skills. He talks about a Jewish family who acted as mentors to him and he shows the audience the Star of David he always wears. He relates how a black gangster told him to find a white boss who would call him "my nigger" and how he cannot say "dirty" words on television but he can say "motherfucker" a lot when not performing. He is hilarious, especially when he tells the story of making the hit recording of "Hello, Dolly!".
There were difficulties for Louis when trying to find a place to eat after his gigs. He would have to sneak into the kitchens of the clubs through alley doors to get a meal. He resented this mistreatment, but it only happened sometimes, especially when the money was good.
John Douglas Thompson stunningly changes to manager Joe Glaser the notorious lawyer who served as "fixer" for the most powerful Chicago and Los Angeles organized crime syndicates; this is the core of the play on occasions. He also intermittently transforms into the young upstart Miles Davis who calls out Armstrong for his relationship with Glaser.
Teachout's narrative touches on xenophobia, mannishness, poverty, fame and bitterness. Thompson alternates between the characters sometimes abruptly. Kevin Adams' lighting design, shifting bright to dark, is brilliant. Lee Savage's set design, with a wide mirror on the back wall that shows the audience sitting out front, is a great asset to the production. Bravo also to Gordon Edelstein who directed this breathtaking 90-minute production.
Satchmo at the Waldorf runs through February 7th, 2016, at ACT's Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at 415-749-2228 on online at www.act-sf.org. Coming up next is the acclaimed musical The Unfortunates from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It opens at ACT's Strand Theatre on February 3 and runs through April 10th.