This tour-de-force just might restore your enthusiasm for American theater. It certainly restored mine. The action: an elderly, ailing Louis Armstrong changes clothes after a show at the Waldorf. That’s all we need, given Terry Teachout’s brilliant dialogue and the extraordinary talent of John Douglas Thompson, who plays Louis Armstrong, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser, with brief cameos as Miles Davis.
We first see Armstrong stagger into his small dressing room, barely able to make it to his to his oxygen tank. Armstrong suffered from congestive heart failure, a major symptom of which is fluid in the extremities, kidneys and lungs; never a good mix for a trumpeter. He begins to reminisce, and the true magic begins here. Thompson makes us believe in Louis Armstrong, makes us love him and genuinely worry about this intelligent, kind and unpretentious soul, now stooped by age, but never bowed. Suddenly, Thompson stands erect and becomes the cocky, strident and fearsome Joe Glazer, a white mob-connected booker who rescued Armstrong from Al Capone in the ’30s and subsequently managed the musician until Glaser’s death in 1970. Thompson’s astonishing two-second transformation would take James Cameron two weeks and cost millions, to less effect.
Alternating between these two characters, Armstrong’s life unfolds before us, not linearly, but in threads, from race relations to career highs and lows, from Armstrong’s hardscrabble New Orleans childhood to his suite at the Waldorf, from his marriage to his relationship with Glaser. The overlaps and slight contradictions between Armstrong’s monologues and Glaser’s points of view paint a startlingly clear portrait not only of an important American musician, but of an impressive human being.
– Suzanne Cadgène