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DeShields conveys Armstrong in QTIP production

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It’s a bold move for Andre De Shields to play Louis Armstrong in his musical “West End Blues: Louis Armstrong, Ambassador Satch,” co-written with James Mirrione, which played at the newly renovated Claire Shulman Playhouse at the Queens Theatre in the Park. Save the mile wide smile, De Shields looks nothing like Pops.

He is for one thing, slender. He doesn’t sound remotely like him. Who else had that cuddly gravely basso? Who else could launch into that scatting that was both low down and dirty and completely innocent? De Shields is a low tenor. He can’t play the coronet like Pops, and those parts were played stirringly by Paul Grant while De Shields lip synched on a golden trumpet named Selma. By the way, Grant, plumpish and darker colored, does look a great deal like Pops when he was a young man. But De Shields’ tribute to Armstrong’s genius was heartfelt, and after one got over being startled, the show was fun.

The evening began with De Shields wielding an umbrella and leading his band down the aisle in a spoof of a New Orleans Jazz funeral. Once onstage he sang an audacious “Hello Louis,” to the tune of “Hello Dolly.”

But De Shields and his band — Grant, Dan Levinson on clarinet and sax, David Grego on bass and tuba, musical director Terry Waldo on piano and Kenny Crutchfield on drums — skillfully help the audience to play along, even if it is hard to suspend disbelief.

Interspersed with the musical numbers, which included “Ain't Misbehavin’,” “West End Blues,” “Black and Blue,” (“My only sin is in my skin,” go the lyrics) and a gleeful “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” are De Shields/Ar­mstrong’s musings on his life.

He begins with his impoverished but seemingly happy enough upbringing and demonstrates some of the tap dancing moves he used to perform as a child on street corners for pennies — until he put his back out. He reminisces about his four wives: Daisy was a “wild woman,” Lil taught him to read music, Alpha was “a downright Jezebel,” and he finally got it right, of course, with Lucille. He fondly discusses his memories of his stand against segregation in Arkansas (he refers to the racist governor as Orville Faux Pas), and of course he talks about his music. Once in a while the George Gershwin-like Levinson puts on some cool sunglasses and a beret and poses as disdainful be-bop musician whose impertinent questions and pronouncements are represented by squawks on the sax.

Isn’t Pops, blares the be-bop artist, out of date? A Tom? De Shields answers back just as disdainfully, at one point whipping on a false goatee, a red beret and a pair of outlandish sunglasses to poke fun at those grim-faced musicians who play with their backs to the audience. (I am sure that Miles heard that one, wherever he is).

Pops played to make his audiences happy and to justify his life, De Shields said without apology.

The evening ended with his version of “What a Wonderful World,” and a standing ovation. If De Shields couldn’t possibly portray Louis Armstrong, I believe that Pops would have approved of his performance anyway.

“West End Blues: Louis Armstrong, Ambassador Satch” was part of the Time Warner Cable Special Events Series at Queens Theatre in the Park.

For more information about upcoming events, go to www.queenstheatre.com or call 760-0064.

Coming up next at Queens Theatre in the Park is the Tony Award nominated play “Home,” written by Samm-Art Williams and directed by Clinton Turner Davis. It is the story of a young black man’s circular journey from his roots on his Southern farm to the big city and back. It’s a simple yet heartfelt story, with the epic sweep of a universal myth. The show is presented in association with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the South Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Performances are Friday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 2, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 3, , 3 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 7, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 9, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 10, 3 p.m.

Updated 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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