Early in Terry Teachout’s one-man play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, the trumpeter declares his intention to “set the folks straight and tell it all now.” We learn in this moment, if we had any doubts, that the play is hardly more than an excuse to narrate a condensed version of Teachout’s Louis Armstrong biography, Pops. Thankfully, it is also an excuse for a tour de force by actor John Douglas Thompson, who deftly portrays not only Armstrong but also his uncompromising Jewish manager, Joe Glaser, and, briefly, Miles Davis, who was critical of what he considered Armstrong’s “Uncle Tom”–style stage antics.
Satchmo’s story, delivered in alternating monologues by Armstrong and Glaser, wanders widely over the life of the jazz great, but it centers on Armstrong’s perceived betrayal by Glaser. The story’s final revelations are surprisingly moving, but the anecdotal nature of the play often wears thin.
Even in representation, though, Armstrong is impossible not to love. Thompson’s rendition is sensitive and layered, presenting a man who is proud, naïve, passionate, and surprisingly self-aware. Casually inhabiting his crooked, aged gait except when snapping into Glaser’s straight-backed stride, Thompson makes music without playing a note. The chief pleasure of Satchmo, under Gordon Edelstein’s gentle direction, is to enjoy this exhumation of Armstrong’s one-of-a-kind charm.