Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Satchmo at the Waldorf
Also see Eddie's recent review of Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Smiles come to every face as each remembers the smile and the sounds of this giant of twentieth-century jazz. As this reincarnated Louis regains his breath, we lean forward in anticipation to spend the next ninety minutes to hear that gravelly voice relish us with the tales of his seventy years of life. So lucky we are to be witnessing this must-see production of Terry Teachout's play and the tour de force performance by the solo star, L. Peter Callender–with full apologies that "tour de force" does not come close in describing the full extent of the stunning, captivating, and delightful performance we are seeing.
Peter Callender has incredibly mastered that familiar craggy voice with its deep, rich tones that sometimes rise suddenly to higher-registered squeaks. We also see Louis' love of entertaining others through that oh-so-familiar warm and welcoming smile and those eyes that sparkle. We hear the hard clicks of final consonants (especially k's and t's), the hanging on to final s's, and the elongation of words like "yeeeessss" that we still identify as uniquely Louis Armstrong. And then there is the laugh, that "ha-ha-ha" that is for Louis what "ho-ho-ho" is for Santa Claus: a trademark of the man the world still knows as Satchmo and a laugh that Peter Callender rings forth repeatedly in raspy rounds of sheer joy. To top it all, he even sweats like Louis Armstrong always did, using that handkerchief to wipe the big drops of moisture from his brow and puffy cheeks without the slightest pause in his latest anecdote.
And then the stories spill forth, reaching back to his youth when Armstrong, at the age of seven, worked for a Jewish family in New Orleans and on to the time he spent at twelve in the Colored Waifs Home (a reform school "where they put my ass in jail" for shooting a blank bullet into the air). From the immigrant Karnofskys, who "treated me like family," he learned Jewish songs that later influenced his music, and received his first horn, a beat-up cornet bought at a pawn shop. At the Waifs Home, "bad luck turned into good luck" as Louis recounts how he "learned to read them little black notes" and began playing in the school's brass band. "That how it all started," he tells us, always speaking directly to us as if we are friends who just happened to drop into his dressing room after his latest show in the Waldorf Astoria's nightclub.
As he rambles and reminisces (often with head cocked and lowered eyes closed as memories play out in his mind's eye), a reel-to-reel tape recorder captures it all, his telling us that he is writing a book: "Gonna set the folks straight while I still can." The names pour out, each with a story that helped shape his life–names of luminaries like Al Capone and Bing Crosby, well-known for both bad and good, and names less widely known, like Papa Joe Oliver and Black Bennie Williams who were important to the early days of jazz but clearly just as important to Armstrong's life and his development as a musician.
But the name that comes up the most is that of Joe Glaser, the white Jewish man (with his own connections to Al Capone), who served as Armstrong's manager and mentor for many decades. Until Glaser's death two years prior, he was clearly one of Louis' closest friends ("I was like a son to him"). Louis regales how in the early days Joe would always ride in the band bus down into the unwelcoming, Deep South and how Joe helped him to be the first Black to have his own radio show, get star billing on a movie house's billboard, and play in a mixed-race band in the highly segregated South. Louis also tells us he was the first Black to "crack the white hotels," with his friend Joe backing him up with the threat, "can't stay, can't play."
It was only after Joe's death that Louis' feelings for Joe Glaser shifted dramatically, leading him to refer to him time and again to us as "that mother-fucker." Thanks to the late Terry Teachout's brilliantly conceived script, we get to hear from both Louis Armstrong and Joe Glaser their versions of how they met, their many years of working together, and what happened from both perspectives to cause Louis to curse the memory of Joe after the latter's death.
With a moment's blackout or a shift in lighting, the Louis Armstrong in front of us becomes a big and loudmouthed Joe Glaser with an accent clearly from a Chicago upbringing and with a left hand on his hip that accentuates his look of bravado. He has his own glee in telling Louis Armstrong stories, referring to him as "Louie," like most of the world–especially the white world–did (and still does).
Armstrong himself tells us, in no uncertain terms, that his name is Louis, with a hard "s." While he was born in New Orleans, Louis insists, "I ain't no French man, no Creole." (What Louis never tells us is how he got the name the world knows him as, Satchmo. That seems an unfortunate omission from a play with that name in the title.)
Joe Glaser recounts how early on, Louis told him, "I don't want to be rich, Mr. Glaser. You be rich. I just wanna blow my horn." That horn that Louis tells us is "my heart, my soul," meant less to Glaser than the voice of his Louis. Joe tells us how he once told Louis, "That voice of yours, that's where the money is ... Like Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker." And it is that voice that did go on to give the world renderings of "Hello, Dolly!" and "What a Wonderful World" that many of us still to this day can hear him singing in the way only he could do.
Louis describes himself to us at one point as "an old ham actor ... Blow a tune ... Tell a joke." While that was a winning combination all over the world, increasingly his audiences were all-white. While Louis expresses to us his regrets that his white-only audiences often looked like "a carton of eggs," he is bitter that by the 1960s some of his fellow Black performers were calling him "Uncle Tom."
As lighting turns an eerie blue, we meet fellow trumpeter of fame, Miles Davis. In a soft, almost whispering voice, he tells us in no uncertain terms that Louis Armstrong acts on the stage "like an old-time darkie," playing "the clown" as he "jumps around like Jim Crow on a stick." While he too most assuredly played to many white audiences in his long career, Miles does not share Louis' jubilance in going out and receiving the adoration of such audiences. He tells us that if he only had one hour left to live, he would want to spend it "choking a white man."
Terry Teachout draws a stark contrast between two of the all-time greats and influencers of jazz with no evaluative conclusion of their differences, but not hiding from us–ourselves a majority white audience and clearly in adoration of Louis–another view of Armstrong that probably still persists today.
While many kudos deservedly go to L. Peter Callender, his knock-out performance is masterfully guided by a director who brings a lifetime of stage and screen acting and directing to bear, Ted Lange. Like a painter, he has conceived a canvas that paints scene after scene of memorable moments, calling upon so many strengths of the actor as well as the lighting artistry of Maurice Vercoutere and the clarity and beauty of sound design by Steve Schoenbeck. Along with the exquisite, detailed costume design of Ashley Garlick (pay close attention to the shoes, watch, and rings Louis wears) and the scenic design of Giulio Cesare Perrone that helps the audience feel that they are sitting on a visitor's couch in a star's dressing room, Ted Lange and his entire creative team have ensured that Peter Callender's Louis, Joe, and Miles come to full life before us.
The result of all is a not-to-be missed evening of live theatre at The Stage that will surely be long-remembered by the audience that jumped to its feet in sustained applause as soon as the final lights went down.
Satchmo at the Waldorf runs through February 26, 2023, at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South 1st Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thestage.org .