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Dance and jazz brighten musical bio, `Satchmo'. Real musicians star in key roles; Maurice Hines did choreography

If only ``Satchmo'' had been a dancer. The legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong was dubbed Satchmo after an Englishman called him that, swallowing the nickname ``Satchel mouth'' that Armstrong's band knew him by.

Now ``Satchmo: America's Musical Legend,'' a musical play based on Armstrong's life, has just opened at Kennedy Center's Opera House here. But while Byron Stripling (as Satchmo) blows a trumpet that would make Gabriel weep, the musical's greatest strength is in its superb dance numbers, choreographed and staged by Maurice Hines.

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Producer Kenneth J. Feld has taken a two-edged risk in casting Armstrong and the members of the bands in this musical with real musicians rather than actors who could simulate playing music. Stripling, who has been the lead trumpet and soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra, makes an exuberant brass star, who charges the show with his talent.

And the other musicians are wonderful, too, especially James Rowan, who makes his stage debut here as the fabled cornet player Joe (King) Oliver. It was Oliver who spotted the musical genius in New Orleans street kid Louis Armstrong, gave the boy his big break in a jazz band, and taught him everything he knew.

But Stripling is an inexperienced actor, and he has the toughest act in the world to follow: the audience memory of Armstrong himself.

This reviewer, who saw Armstrong perform once at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, will never forget the love he trumpeted out to his audience. They returned it by prancing on the seats as he played hits like ``When the Saints Go Marching In.'' The image of Satchmo is hard to erase: the wide white smile like lights across a bridge, the cellar rasp of his voice, the thrill of that ebullient music as he aimed his trumpet at the sky and blew till his cheeks looked like cannonballs.

Stripling is his own man, who does not resemble Armstrong but has brought some Satchmo mannerisms to the role. He does a great ``Oh, yeah'' in the familiar Armstrong growl. And he projects warmth and enthusiasm. But he seems a bit uncomfortable in the role and at times a bit bumbling. If only he could let go and blast away at the role as he does at his trumpet. He needs more help from director Jerry Bilik, who also wrote the show.

The show, too, still needs work. It gets off to a slow, bumpy start, with redundant material establishing who Armstrong was. In an age of MTV and jump cuts, audiences don't need that. ``Satchmo'' doesn't really come alive until Scene 4, when Oliver and the band and dancers do a sassy show-stopper of a cakewalk number, ``New Year's in New Orleans.''

Why not start the story with his childhood and the endearing scene at ``the Colored Waifs Home, New Orleans''?

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The production needs cutting, and it needs crisper, surer direction in the non-musical scenes. Someone also needs to turn down the volume at the beginning of the show, which is badly overmiked.

But the dance numbers are terrific, among them ``Jeepers Creepers'' and ``Struttin' with Some Barbecue'' at the Cotton Club; ``Bamboula,'' with an African sound, from Ghana; and ``Chicago Jazz,'' with irresistible bursts of the Charleston. Maurice Hines's choreography is magical.

It's a large cast, but ``Satchmo's'' major roles are filled by Ebony Jo-Ann, effectively playing both Armstrong's mother and his fourth wife, Lucille. Matilda Haywood is a charmer as Lil Harden, one of Louis's wives, who sings a soulful ``Love - It's Not Easy.'' Elliott Goldwag swaggers well as the brash manager, Joe Glaser. And Doug Barden proves his versatility by juggling four roles in a winning way. Quincella (an actress who uses no last name) sings, dances, and pouts up an erotic storm as one of Armstrong's early girlies.

``Satchmo'' documents Armstrong's battle with the racism of his era in two of the best scenes in the show, one a recording session where white managers can't understand the national success of ``race music'' (jazz), the other a Memphis jail scene in which Armstrong's band makes bail by performing.

Two of ``Satchmo's'' other assets are stunning period sets by Edward Burbridge and some splendiferous costumes by Judy Dearing.

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