An old man, stooped and weary, staggers into a room.  “When did I get so old?” he moans.  It’s the universal lament of the aged.

So begins Terry Teachout’s new play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf”; the man is jazz trumpeter/show biz icon Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, the room is backstage at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he has just played a gig, and–after laying down his beloved horn–he takes a breath, turns to the audience, and begins to tell his story.

And what a story it is: he reminisces about his mobbed-up manager, Joe Glaser; his philosophical feud with jazz great Miles Davis, who insisted that by constantly appeasing and playing for the white man, Armstrong was an Uncle Tom; his wife, the sassy Lucille; and others.

We meet all these people, and the remarkable thing is that they’re all played by the same actor, the incredibly versatile John Douglas Thompson.  Though looking nothing like the aging Armstrong–Thompson is tall and robust and considerably younger–he brings to his performance an amazing array of details, including (of course) the man’s unforgettably distinctive voice.  Watching him, it’s hard to believe he’s not 70–Armstrong’s age in the play–not suffering from a bad heart and roiling stomach, not in need of the oxygen tank that he turns to more than once, not still in love, despite it all, with performing.

Despite the size of its “cast”, though, “Satchmo” is, at its core, a two-hander–a memory play about the long relationship between Glazer, the fast-talking Jewish wheeler and dealer, and his adopted “son”, his principal client, the young and comparatively innocent Louis.  When Armstrong calls for help, Glaser responds; when Glaser tells Armstrong to do something, the grateful young musician never hesitates. And when the older man dies, Louis grieves–but not without a measure of anger, the cause of which becomes clear at the end.  (Hints that Glaser had somehow betrayed Armstrong’s trust are dropped early on, and waiting for the moment when all is revealed provides some legitimate suspense.)

A solo piece like “Satchmo” is only as good as the performer’s ability to morph, quickly and cleanly, from one character to the next.  Thompson has that ability, and then some.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf”–directed by Gordon Edelstein–will make you laugh and make you cry and sometimes even both at once…and is as charming as the perpetually sunny Armstrong himself, as memorable as one of his long, sweet notes.

Don’t miss it.

THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien