Signature Theatre’s revival of the 1992 musical Jelly’s Last Jam is a rich slurry of jazz, blues and ragtime music, thunderous performances and some of the most extraordinary tap dancing you’re ever likely to see, assembled by choreographer Jared Grimes.
Director Matthew Gardiner combines these elements with lustrous visuals—a sizzling Art Deco jungle-themed nightclub set by Daniel Conway (bathed in warm amber light by lighting designer Grant Wilcoxen) that weaves around Signature’s Max Theatre like a glittering snake. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes further the show’s lush look with peacock-proud creations of silk, sequins, bugle beads and tassels rendered in gilt and jeweled hues, with bespoke suits draping the men.
Combine all this with bright orchestrations by musical director Darius Smith and you have an incandescent show that largely captures the exhilaration of the original Broadway production, which starred Gregory Hines in the title role of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.
While Hines was that rare triple threat of dancer, singer and actor, Signature goes in a different direction by casting acclaimed jazz pianist and theater newbie Mark G. Meadows as Jelly. This move pays off for the most part, particularly when Meadows is seated at the piano, executing the dexterity and astonishing articulation for which Meadows and Morton are known.
Tight and poised hitting the keys of Jelly Roll Morton’s intricate compositions and singing Susan Birkenhead’s pointed lyrics, Meadows is pure jazz nirvana. He is less assured playing Morton, seeming to stay in the comfort zone of placid observer as the show swirls and shimmies around him. To bring out the struggles and issues dealt with in George C. Wolfe’s book, you need to see the range of Jelly Roll Morton, who was both a prodigy and a jerk.
He was a flamboyantly confident man who took credit for “inventing jazz” in 1902 and spun other such tales about his prowess to cover up for the pains inflicted on him early in life. He’s somebody who refers to himself in the third person, as in “The Jelly does this,” to give you an idea of the ego you’re dealing with.
A New Orleans Creole with a genteel, Euro-centric upbringing, he was conflicted about color and class, insisting his family lineage was directly from France and fancying himself—a light-skinned man—better than those with dark skin. What seemed to have escaped him is that in America in the early 20th century, society did not make such distinctions and saw him as black as everybody else.
Jelly’s Last Jam takes place in the afterlife, as Jelly breathes his last and is visited by the elegantly shamanistic Chimney Man (a towering Cleavant Derricks), who leads him on a tour of his sins and mistakes in an effort to get Jelly to let go of denial and see himself for who he truly is and to accept and embrace all who helped him and came before him.
This journey takes him through a difficult childhood, where his august grandmother Gran Mimi (a foundations-shaking Iyona Blake) denounces and condemns Jelly for forsaking his Creole aristocracy to sneak out and play piano at juke joints and bordellos. Nova Y. Payton gets to display the chops she’s noted for playing a blues singer Miss Mamie, who blows the roof off the joint singing “Michigan Water.” Payton also shows her sultry side and versatility as one of the Hunnies, a trio (along with the talented Eben K. Logan and Kara-Tameika Watkins) of flappers who tease and provoke Jelly.
Thrown out of the house, Jelly leaves New Orleans to seek his fortune, meeting best friend Jack the Bear (Guy Lockard, irresistible as the lumbering sidekick) while riding the rails.
In a dance hall in Chicago, Jelly finds his niche—hot, rollicking jazz—as seen in the vivacious number “That’s How You Jazz,” which builds to so many dazzling crescendos, you fear epiphany fatigue. Not to worry, more fireworks are on the way as Jelly pursues Sweet Anita (Felicia Boswell, an astonishing mix of cheek and vulnerability and a voice that will bring you to your knees), a no-nonsense woman who’s got Jelly’s number right from the start. Their relationship unfolds in “Lovin’ is a Lowdown Blues,” which takes place in a brass bed, as the couple goes from sexual intoxication to intimacy to trouble.
Jelly’s Last Jam
closes September 11, 2018
Details and tickets
In a musical dizzy with music, the production finds abundant rhythm beyond Jelly’s syncopated compositions. An early scene shows the young Jelly bowled over by the African, Latin and Caribbean rhythms and percussive sounds of the New Orleans streets, influences that found their way into his music but were never acknowledged by the race-proud Jelly.
The afore-mentioned tap dancing provides an insistent beat that expresses the emotions Jelly denies himself—anger, fear, violence, anxiety. These are thrillingly expressed by the company, but you have to single out DeMoya Watson Brown, Christopher Broughton, DeWitt Fleming Jr., Olivia Russell and Joseph Monroe Webb for transcendent tapping in the number “Dr. Jazz” as well as others, which reminds you of the highly emotive dancing seen most recently in the musical Shuffle Along, another George C. Wolfe creation.
When they’re dancing at full throttle, you can see and most importantly, feel, all the life and promise and hurt Jelly passed up to hide behind his ego and piano. Jelly’s Last Jam poses the question—how can a man obstinately blind to so much produce such dazzling music?
Jelly’s Last Jam . Book by George C. Wolfe . Music by Jelly Roll Morton . Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead . Additional music by Luther Henderson . Directed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Mark G. Meadows, Cleavant Derricks, Elijah Mayo, Felicia Boswell, Guy Lockard, Iyona Blake, V. Savoy McIlwain, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Christopher Broughton, DeMoya Watson Brown, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Olivia Russell, Jospeh Monroe Webb, Stephen Scott Wormley . Choreographer: Jared Grimes . Music Direction: Darius Smith . Scenic Design: Daniel Conway . Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite . Lighting Design: Grant Wilcoxen . Sound Design: Lane Elms . Wig Design: Leah Loukas . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.