by Maggie Kulbokas
"Satch" stars the incredibly talented and energetic Andre De Shields as Louis Armstrong. The show tells the story of Armstrong's life and the influences that shaped one of America's greatest musical talents and one of the true fathers of jazz.
The curtain opens on a mostly black and white stage that functions as the background for a vibrantly colorful story. A side door opens and a parade of musicians in tuxedos enters the audience with De Shields as Armstrong in the lead. He bobs and jives to the music--a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In." In an instant the audience was enthralled. De Shields is dynamic and the music is hard to resist. The group makes its way to a simple stage reminiscent of a big band stand. The ensemble's five musicians are true talents hitting each note--high, low, gloomy or lofty, right on target.
Armstrong conveys his life story through De Shields, engaging the audience with his first words. De Shields exudes Armstrong's witty, sparkling personality through speech and song. From time to time Armstrong "plays"--horn in one hand, trademark handkerchief in the other. The actual trumpeting is done by the amazingly talented Stanton Davis who has played on Broadway in such shows as "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and "Aint Misbehavin'".
De Shields co-wrote "Ambassador Satch" with James P. Mirrione and the show plays like a true labor of love. Music director Terry Waldo played an enthusiastic piano for the ensemble.
The simple stage is accented with changing backdrops and the show's only real costume change--that of Harriet D. Foy. Foy plays all four of Armstrong's wives with an incredibly sexy flourish--it is easy to see how each of these women turned Armstrong's head. Foy's costumes are larger than life and wonderfully representative of ladies' styles from the earlier half of the twentieth century.
Louis Armstrong was given the nickname "Satchmo", short for "Satchelmouth", referring to his large mouth. It was his joyous outlook and grand toothy smile that sadly brought about ridicule from some in his advanced years. As the music changed and jazz grew into a solid, formidable American sound, politics and race in the United States were dicey at best. Some fellow black musicians and critics labeled Armstrong an Uncle Tom and accused him of pandering to white audience. Satch was understandably dogged by these criticisms. In the show, his critics were represented by a distant shadowy musician taunting Armstrong--daring to turn his back on and ignore one of the jazz and blues movement's founding fathers. But it is Armstrong's strong, positive nature that prevails. He was a consummate performer whose true goals were to make music and put on a great show for the audience--black or white. As the song says, it is a wonderful world. One filled with the potential for hope, promise and joy.
If you go to one show this summer, make it "Ambassador Satch." You won't regret it.