BWW Review: Mosaic Theater's SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF A Reflection of Our Times
Anytime you have a chance to catch Craig Wallaceonstage, you should. But when you can see this seasoned actor, gifted with quiet charisma, performing a one-man show and embodying three inimitably American characters - let me just put it this way:
Stop reading this drivel-go see the man.
See Satchmo at the Waldorf now, there'll be plenty of time to read the rest of this review if you have any questions. Director Eleanor Holdrige has collaborated with Wallace to create a timely meditation on fame, race, music, and the tragedy of a generous soul trying to survive in a cynical, brutal world. Mosaic Theater has launched its second season with a quietly powerful show that should leave audiences with a renewed appreciation for an American legend whose depth of character is rarely acknowledged.
Armstrong's career, and his life-long ordeal, are unfortunately all too familiar for us to pass over as a period piece. A jazz man toggling between New York's and Chicago's speakeasies during Prohibition, Armstrong's fame was such that he was soon forced to ally himself with one of Al Capone's fixers-Joe Glaser, whose talents, at first, were more focused on pimping and bootlegging than music. Together the two forged a decades-long business partnership that enriched both men handsomely, bringing Armstrong a level of main-stream acceptance that black musicians had never seen before.
Satchmo's struggles, both personal and professional, anticipate those of every performer of color today. We forget that Armstrong's vocal protest against racial injustice predates quarterback Colin Kaepernick's silent protest by some 60 years. Count 'em, 60. He was caricatured by younger folk as an Uncle Tom, but when the school integration struggle was at its height Armstrong used his celebrity to attack Arkansas Governor Orval Forbus in vivid, colorful terms (Satchmo favored a certain twelve-letter, maternal epithet which one might discreetly render as "jerk").
Armstrong also openly attacked President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his refusal to stand up to racism in the South, cancelling a 'musical ambassador' tour to the Soviet Union. Anyone who thinks this was easy for the most famous black man in America of that time, doesn't know the history.
Playwright Terry Teachout, not content to produce a fine biography of Louis Armstrong, has created a unique evening of theater that weaves together the story of the great jazz musician with that of Satchmo's manager Glaser, and a younger, edgier jazz great by the name of MiLes Davis. What elevates this drama is Teachout's ability to weave three very different perspectives on Satchmo's life which reflect deeply on each other. One minute we see Armstrong expressing bitterness at his manager's betrayal, the next we see Glaser, cigar in hand, regaling us with tales of Armstrong's naiveté and run-ins with the law. This is followed hard on by Wallace's take on the wispy, self-important Davis, all charcoal shades and swagger, condemning Armstrong in terms that were as ignorant as they were self-serving.
Glaser's job was to shield Armstrong from the grind of negotiating contracts and salaries, etc., so that Satchmo was free to do what he really wanted-make music, make people happy, and make a living at both. But Glaser's ties to the mob were a given, and his roots in the underworld eventually came back to haunt both him and Armstrong; the roots of his betrayal of Armstrong at the end of his life are laid out for us in painful detail.
Davis, meanwhile, reminds us of the impatience and blindness that comes with youth. Raised in a wealthy, professional black household, Davis came onto the jazz scene with a completely different set of expectations. Armstrong was raised by a single mother who was forced to work the brothels of New Orleans; Satchmo had to scramble for his meals from a very early age. A local Jewish family, not much better off than he was, hired him, fed him, helped him buy his first cornet and taught him the beauty and music of Jewish prayer. That experience of acceptance shaped Armstrong in many ways-witness the Star of David he wore throughout his adult life-and it taught him to seek the goodness in everyone he met, even in whites who-whether north or south-had been raised to view blacks with suspicion and condescension.
Andrew Cohen gives us a symbolic setting, framed (literally) by gold-leaf and blue velvet, with the dressing room at the Waldorf as its centerpiece. Christopher Baine makes good, discreet use of Armstrong's back catalogue but it must be said that Wallace's impersonation of Satchmo's gravelly singing voice renders Baine's work almost superfluous.
Bottom line: go to see Wallace, and be prepared to learn a few important lessons, compellingly relevant today, about life, art, acceptance, and the price of fame.