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Ambassador Satch in Philadelphia


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From the moment the play opens--with De Shields hoisting an umbrella, grinning gloriously like Louis and leading marching musicians down the aisle as if it were Bourbon Street, the audience was caught up in a sense of Mardi Gras excitement.
Ambassador Satch, a world premier musical portrait of Louis Armstrong, now playing at the Prince Music Theater through March 9, is, like its subject matter, a joy to behold. The show, and “show” is what it really is, features co-writer André De Shields as Louis, a first class five piece jazz band directed by Terry Waldo and a powerhouse female vocalist, Harriett D. Foy, who plays Louis’ several wives. James P. Mirrone was co-writer and Mercedes Ellington, the choreographer.

Telling Armstrong’s story in the songs he sang from the searingly bitter Black and Blue to pop pieces such as What A Wonderful World , the play carries you from Louis back-of-town birth in New Orleans in 1901 through his pop success with such latter day stars as Barbra Streisand. It touches on his trip to Africa earning him the nick name of Ambassador (of good will) Satch to go with his other monickers such as Satchel mouth. It covers his blasting school segregation as well as his famous put-down of bop musicians with his parody of The Whiffenpoof Song—"to the tables down at Birdland to the place where Dizzy plays."

I was prepared, in my cynical conception of such ventures, to dismiss this effort as a hokey burlesque of the life of America’s 20th century jazz Gabriel . I had, after all, been listening to Louis since I was nine years old when he sang Jeepers Creepers to a horse in the 1938 movie Going Places. I had seen him at his famous 1947 Town Hall concert that brought him back to fame and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem as well as listening to his breath-takingly innovative recordings such as Gut Bucket Blues from the 1920s. Who could possibly replicate his searing vocals and pioneering jazz cornet solos?

De Shields, who plays Louis with aplomb, would probably be the first to concede that he does not have the chops of Armstrong. Who does? The band is not the "hot five" and this not Louis alive. It is, however— largely due to the performers, direction, choreography and Mr. De Shields daring emulation of Louis—a lot of fun.

From the moment the play opens—with De Shields hoisting an umbrella, grinning gloriously like Louis and leading marching musicians down the aisle as if it were Bourbon Street, the audience was caught up in a sense of Mardi Gras excitement. This did not end until they were standing, applauding, cheering and chanting as the play ended with When The Saints Go Marching In. This is a play that made several hundred people happy on a cold, wet night—something Louis himself would have applauded.

De Shields is an award-winning actor, director, educator and writer who created the title role in The Wiz and won the Outer Critics Circle Award and Tony nomination for his work in The Full Monty. Waldo is a composer, band leader and author with over 30 recordings. The Prince, a neat little theater, is at 1412 Chestnut Street. Ticket prices are $25-$40, available at the theater and by calling 215.569.9700.

In just two weeks, on March 16, The Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall at Spruce and Broad Streets will welcome back ambassadors of a different sort, The Chieftains, whose debut last Spring was sold out. They were appointed official music ambassadors for Ireland by the Irish Republic in 1989.

Their appearance will be providing me with fond memories of my childhood in New York City where every St. Patrick’s Day was cold, wet and windy while young Catholic school girls marched up Fifth Avenue wearing short green skirts. I should note that like most Americans on March 17, I am quick to claim my Irish heritage from my maternal grand father who came from County Kerry, Ireland.

The Chieftains, led by piper Paddy Moloney, have been making everyone Irish for some 40 years since their founding in 1962 with their internationally acclaimed performances of traditional Irish music. There is something akin to the blues that Louis did in the Gallic tunes that sing of death and drink with primal passion. That stems in part from the Irish tendency to tell jokes at wakes and cry at weddings.

Tickets are from $20 to $72 at the Kimmel Cent er box office or by calling 215.893.1999.

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