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Tomming From the Heart: Satchmo at the Waldorf at The Long Wharf Theatre

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Tomming From the Heart: Satchmo at the Waldorf at The Long Wharf Theatre

Rather than taking place in a dressing room at the Waldorf-Astoria (as implied by the title and set design), or within the imagination of main character Louis Armstrong (as suggested by the material’s discursiveness), the entirety of Satchmo at the Waldorf unfolds in whatever theater it happens to be playing. A monologue delivered by a single actor (John Douglas Thompson), the play respects no fourth wall. Armstrong speaks directly to the audience rather than to himself, in the de rigueur one-man-show fashion, baiting the crowd with gags about racial homogeneity and then clenching his fingers maniacally inward to encourage their laughter. (The performance I attended in New Haven was played to an all-white house; in what is surely optional script at the play’s middle, Armstrong described us as a “carton of eggs.”)

As in the similarly quasi-historical monologue Secret Honor, there is a reel-to-reel tape recorder on stage, into which Armstrong intimates biographical details for posterity. But the implausibility of the apparatus’s use in that location—surely Pops wouldn’t have been taping his memoirs in small dressing rooms during the sickly year of his death—doesn’t allow it to function properly as a plot device, and Thompson quickly ignores its dead weight. He instead intones Armstrong’s memories with his back to the tape recorder’s microphone, often hurling angry reminiscences toward the top row seats when he isn’t mugging to them. The objective of this inclusiveness, though it continually stresses the artifice of the production, is not Brechtian cuteness but historical accuracy. The play is essentially extroverted, and it requires an acknowledged audience for fulfillment—just as Armstrong did. Upstage, a large, visible make-up mirror surrounded by bald lightbulbs shows the ghostly image of the actor’s dorsal side, along with the faces of the dimly-lit onlookers behind it—the performer is effectively besieged by ticket holders and their reflections. (Whether this is meant to represent Armstrong’s idea of heaven or of hell remains ambiguous.)

But writer Terry Teachout and director Gordon Edelstein have also included “the public” in their play as a silent character, so as to to unleash the explicitly private Armstrong upon it. The veil of showbiz propriety is torn, and Armstrong, as in his personal notes, spews a regionally colorful assortment of swears and strident opinions concerning bebop and civil rights. Satchmo at the Waldorf thus becomes the story of Armstrong’s life as he probably would have liked it to be told interpersonally, to anyone and everyone, in the raw, clipped cadence of his foul vernacular; it hopes to provide his iconography with a rootsy, brash catharsis while remaining tonally casual. In the play’s representative opening, Armstrong describes how he messed his pants in the hotel elevator earlier that day. Thompson’s pained but nonchalant delivery almost suggests an attempt to break the ice between two obligatory conversationalists.

That the anecdote is quickly converted into a lament about age, however (“How did I get so old?” he croaks), signals a troubling trepidation toward the many coarse affairs Armstrong was not shy about among friends, including his marijuana use and his bowel movements. Teachout’s acclaimed biography on Armstrong is similarly hesitant to delve into the man’s bodily functions, despite their centrality to his daily life and down-to-earth demeanor. His fecal obsessions are even easily explainable: Due to a penurious youth involving much starchy, unhealthy food, he became fixated upon intestinal cleanliness, and he regulated his own metabolism with laxatives. As for the pot smoking, only Gary Giddins’s musicological text on the trumpeter dares to connect his unflagging grins with the levels of THC floating about his bloodstream, a dangerous but very likely hypothesis.

Armstrong’s rituals of pot and shit are downplayed and omitted, respectively, from Satchmo at the Waldorf’s selective biographical arc, which focuses largely on Armstrong’s relationship with manager and erstwhile mobster Joe Glaser. Thompson portrays the Jewish mogul as well in fits and starts, employing abrupt, grand-actorly transitions to create a cragged dialectic of consciousness. (Lighting cues signal a departure from the Waldorf setting as well, revealing a phony-looking, Chicago-skyline backdrop during Glaser scenes that is otherwise hidden from view.) His approximation of Glaser’s midwestern anti-charm helps to keep the play’s 90 minutes dynamic, and Teachout’s fictionalization of the two’s wonky working rhythms offers lyrical insight on their strange, yet incalculably lucrative, partnership. But one wonders if Armstrong’s equally difficult and necessary reliance on Swiss Kriss wouldn’t have made for a more usefully startling dramatic arc. To reveal the dirty business of Armstrong before an adoring audience is one thing, but what about the dirty body?

While Teachout and Edelstein have blocked their material to put Armstrong exactly where he belongs, with an eternal crowd to mug to, the material itself suffers from strenuous accuracy, polite elisions, and only half-imaginative what-ifs. (One gets the impression that Teachout knows Armstrong better than the trumpeter knew himself in 1971.) Even the warts-and-all approach to Armstrong’s character feels forced; Miles Davis and Orval Faubaus get called a “nigger” and a “cocksucker,” respectively, but one anticipates bolder flights of arrogance or misinterpretation from an aging genius. Explaining why, precisely, Armstrong was a genius also proves an awkwardly upheld obligation. When Armstrong leads the audience through a tape recording of his enormously influential “West End Blues,” for example, he talks like a critic, describing an operatic climb to a high C note in the song’s opening in terms of narrative.

Thompson soldiers his reverential and highly entertaining impression through this shamefully uncharacteristic passage, but the analysis feels too eager, much like intermittent mouthfuls of matter-of-fact bio-fluff—about Armstrong’s prostitute mother, or his tenure with Kid Oliver—feel included to suggest academic comprehensiveness. These omniscient-narrator-like lines wreck the intimacy that the thoughtful staging manages with the character. The script’s obvious desire to raise awareness of Armstrong’s accomplishments gets in the way of a truly impeccable representation of the man’s lively roughness.

Satchmo at the Waldorf runs on Stage II at the Long Wharf Theatre until November 2.

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAcftIUE6MQ

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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