Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, continues to find new ways to impress audiences with Jelly's Last Jam, an eye-filling and affecting musical recounting the life and tumultuous times of Jelly Roll Morton pianist, recording artist, and self-styled "inventor of jazz" which blends Morton's tunes with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.
George C. Wolfe, who wrote the book for this 1992 musical and directed the original production, set the action in the Jungle Inn, a spectral nightclub "between heaven and hell," which Daniel Conway's scenic design and Grant Wilcoxen's lighting design bring sumptuously to life on the floor of the MAX Theatre. A curved, raised walkway flows from the proscenium and undulates across the space, trimmed with footlights in metal cages and rising above cabaret tables and banquettes. Above the stage, a jumping seven-member orchestra performs from a slightly off-kilter bandstand. (Of interest to Washington audiences: the Jungle Inn also was a real nightclub located in a building that still stands on U Street NW, "Black Broadway" where Morton worked late in his career.)
Under the fluid direction of Matthew Gardiner, the Chimney Man (Cleavant Derricks, deep-voiced and implacable) appears and summons the spirit of the recently departed Jelly Roll Morton (Mark G. Meadows), Before determining where Jelly's soul will spend eternity, the Chimney Man forces the musician to give up his self-serving illusions and look at the truth of his life.
A continuing theme of Wolfe's works (also including The Colored Museum and Bring in 'da Noise, Bring In da Funk) is the exploration of African-American history and how the pain of slavery and segregation brought forth blues and jazz as a form of consolation and beauty. As depicted here, Morton grew up in New Orleans in a bourgeois Creole family whose ancestors included both free people of color and white people of French descent, but despite his love for the music of the streets and the brothels, he refused to acknowledge his African heritage.
Meadows is a renowned jazz pianist and singer, and the greatest strength of his performance is when he sits down at the piano and lets the sound come billowing out like smoke. This may be flashy and exhibitionistic, as when Jelly captivates a skeptical dance-hall audience with "That's How You Jazz," or slow-burning and steamy, as he seduces singer Anita (Felicia Boswell) with "Play the Music for Me." His dialogue scenes fade in comparison.
Choreographer Jared Grimes creates dances that enchant both the eye and the ear: sinuous movement, tapping as an explosive form of percussion, even one shockingly angry number that echoes Jelly's mood. It should be noted that Meadows is not a dancer, unlike Gregory Hines, who originated the role on Broadway.