The show: "Satchmo at the Waldorf" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre
First impressions: "People don't know me," says John Douglas Thompson, giving a masterful performance, at the beginning of Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout's one-actor play about the life, career and times of beloved singer-trumpeter-jazz man Louis Armstrong. "Say they do, think they do...they don't. All they know is what they see on TV."
It's an Armstrong that many won't be aware of — unless they have read Teachout's 2009 biography "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." Some might even be shocked. The play is set in 1971 during the last months of Armstrong's life. He's in his dressing room at the posh Waldorf hotel nightclub, talking candidly, profanely and painfully about his experiences, especially his relationship with his white Jewish mob-connected manager of 40 years, Joe Glaser — whom Thompson also vividly portrays. Miles Davis also makes a cameo appearance to flesh-out Armstrong's story, leveling criticism of Armstrong for "jumping round like Jim Crow on a stick — all to make those white [expletive] happy."
Teachout creates a well-crafted drama of a good-hearted, soulful, gifted and complex man dealing with a world that isn't always so wonderful.
Is the show wonderful, too?: It's solid entertainment, dramatically engaging and sharply and unsentimentally directed by Gordon Edelstein. But it would be stronger if it was more about the music and less about similarly-themed stories about his cross-over career and setting the record straight.
Teachout tries to elevate the bio-play conventions by emphasizing the musician's relationship with the manager Armstrong calls "my big boss man." The musician, who was abandoned by his father, felt a filial connection with the tough-talking, protective and commanding Glaser. But the father-son connection was one-sided.
So no Oedipus here?: The relationship was not that kind of struggle. In the end it is more a simple betrayal with a twist. Thompson is riveting in his intense portrayal of Glaser and when the actor says "I'm you, Louie, and you're me," the instantaneous and stunning shifts in character works on many levels.
Teachout's Armstrong is ambivalent, compliant and un-engaged with his career because he was, he says, devoted so to his music. It took Glaser's savvy and shady dealings to catapult the musician beyond the less-than-seller venues into the big time and big money from white audiences.
Is there music in the show?: Snippets of music are heard but this is no "Ella" if that's what you mean. Still, one longed for more of "a story in music."
Does Thompson look like Louie? It's Louis, by the way. Only white audiences referred to him with the diminutive name. No, you won't do a double-take at the resemblance. Thompson, whose decision to become an actor began in New Haven in 1987, evokes the raspy voice and even more sparingly uses the signature wide smile. But make no doubt about it, you feel the spirit of Armstrong strongly here, just not in the ways you might think.
Meaning? It's the whole man behind the grin that is shown here. It's a grin that black jazzmen like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie felt was a sell-out to get white audiences, a charge that in the play wounds and angers him deeply. But it is also clear that the smile comes from his genuine sweet soul, too.
The play is full of those dual realities: a man clearly in love with his wife but who was also a rogue; a man whose image on TV was sweet and inoffensive but who spoke in salty vernacular; a man who said it was only about the music but one who also had ambition, too.
For the kids?: Language in the play is plenty potent — but so is history, especially a complicated one like Armstrong's.
Who will like it?: Jazz fans. Armstrong fans. Thompson fans.
Who won't?: Those who think of him as Louie.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: An American icon, performed by one of the finest actors of our generation in a show that hits almost all the right notes.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: One couldn't help but feel the irony of this play about Armstrong talking how he was called a sell-out by going after a largely white audience, being performed in front of an audience of almost all white theater-goers. One wishes his story finds a broader audience.
The basics: Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II is located at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven. The show plays through Nov. 11. Running time is 1 hour 25 minutes, no intermission. FYIs: Lots of swearing. Tickets are $50 to $70, plus fees. Information: 203-787-4282 and http://www.longwharf.org.
Read Frank Rizzo's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know by following Frank on http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz