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Brilliant stage bio unveils what’s behind Satchmo mask

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

John Douglas Thompson, in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” as jazz great Louis Armstrong. Photo by F. Charles Erickson.

John Douglas Thompson, in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” as jazz great Louis Armstrong. Photo by F. Charles Erickson.

I don’t believe cutting the deluge of foul language from “Satchmo at the Waldorf” would make the one-man show better.

Just less authentic.

In the first place, heaps of humor invoked by the swearing would be eliminated.

Second, a huge chunk of brilliant characterization John Douglas Thompson provides in the American Conservatory Theatre bio-drama would be jettisoned.

Third, I’d remain ignorant about what lurks behind the jazz great’s ever-smiling public mask.

Thompson plays multiple parts — an elderly, reminiscing Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong; his gruff white manager, Joe Glaser, who converted the cornetist into a world-famous pop singer; Miles Davis, jazz’s innovative prototype of cool; as well as an unnamed cub reporter.

The Shakespearean-classical actor’s changes in voice and body language make differentiation easy — while the staged history tracks how Satchmo’s manager, the mob and his black skin controlled and defined him.

Thompson portrays Glaser as an Edward G. Robinson-type tough guy.

Who negotiates “with a pistol stuck up the other guy’s nose — Chicago style.”

Regarding gangland links, Terry Teachout’s 90-minute play points to Armstrong being indirectly “owned” by Al Capone and Dutch Schultz.

Thompson doesn’t imitate Satch so much as sketch his behaviors — rolling his r’s and speaking with a gravelly voice; waving a white hanky and blotting his brow with it.

Thumbs up2In the process, the actor shows me a behind-the-scenes peek at Satchmo’s demons and checkered history.

And the bigotry he faced for years.

Like not being allowed in many hotels. And restaurants.

So Satch justifies smoking joints because “you forget all the bad things…that happen to a black man”

Still he laments never having been invited to the homes of two whites he mistakenly considered friends — Glaser and crooner Bing Crosby.

And he engages in a battle of words with trumpeter Davis, who belittles him as an Uncle Tom.

The radical Davis later goes ballistic: “If somebody told me I had one hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man — [and] I’d do it nice and slow.”

And he cuts Armstrong no slack, not even when, after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus sends in the National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from entering a Little Rock high school, Satch bellows that President Eisenhower has “no guts” for allowing it.

Louis Armstrong as Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong as Louis Armstrong.

Over all, though, Armstrong’s a happy man.

At least when folks call him Louis and not Louie (he thinks the latter sounds pretentiously French).

He’s upbeat despite end-of-life heart, kidney and breathing problems — and despite feeling Glaser cheated and betrayed him.

Thankful especially for fame and the chance to perform 300 times a year (arguably, he was the most popular jazz musician of the 20th century and, if you believe Ken Burns’ mini-series on jazz, seminal).

Thankful for being the first African American to get star billing in a movie.

The play, directed by Gordon Edelstein, traces Satchmo to his birth in Storyville, poverty-ridden black neighborhood of New Orleans “where all the whores live.”

Where one of those prostitutes is his mother.

Teachout, Wall Street Journal drama critic who’d penned a book about the legend, references Armstrong’s boyhood arrest for shooting a gun, then getting sentenced to reform school where he learns the cornet.

After his “first big break” through mentor-bandleader Joe “King” Oliver, Satch becomes known for hitting amazingly high notes, swinging musical phrases and wordless “scat” vocalizing.

But his greatest fame waits for “Hello, Dolly,” a tune he disses.

“You got to give folks what they want,” he rationalizes.

The play is set in 1971, four months before Satchmo died at 69. In it, two bits of stagecraft stand out.

Thompson’s undressing incredibly slowly lets me ignore the lack of action — as does his lovingly cleaning the horn at a similar pace.

But “Satchmo” has pieces missing.

Thompson sings minimally, doesn’t play the cornet at all, and doesn’t employ Armstrong’s recordings to any extent.

I also notice Satchmo’s nickname isn’t explained (it stemmed from his large “satchel mouth”).

Furthermore, the play cites Armstrong’s four wives without fleshing out any.

No matter.

In a review of “Satchmo,” the Boston Globe uses a line I love so much I’m stealing it:

“Tour de force would be an understatement.”

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” plays A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Feb. 7. Night performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m., Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $105 (subject to change). Information: 415-749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or at www.vitalitypress.com

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