Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Jelly's Last Jam

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 22, 2024

Nicholas Christopher and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Death comes for us all, of course, though it is not typically featured in the opening moments of a big splashy musical such as the one on view at New York City Center, which is hosting an all-out, gloriously performed, lavishly designed, brilliantly directed, and altogether thrilling production of Jelly's Last Jam as part of the Encores! season.

The musical, which originally appeared on Broadway in 1992 and garnered 11 Tony nominations and three wins, tells the tale of one Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (1890-1941), scion of a New Orleans Creole family who would become better known by the name of his reimagined self, Jelly Roll Morton, the self-proclaimed "inventor" of jazz.

The story, with a book by George C. Wolfe, unfolds in a way station between heaven and hell, where Jelly Roll has been summoned after he was wounded in a stabbing and died in the aftermath of his treatment in a segregated Black hospital in Los Angeles. For him, it is a reckoning. But for us, it is an invitation to the after(life) party, a wonderful evening of song and dance, albeit one that is centered on an altogether sorry excuse for a human being.

Best be prepared. If you are not familiar with the show, don't go in expecting a celebratory revue-type of production in the manner of, say, Ain't Misbehavin' or Eubie!. I'd leave the kids at home as well, for this is a decidedly grownup evening. Within the walls of music drawn from Morton's songbook, as arranged and orchestrated by Luther Henderson, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, with exquisite dance numbers choreographed by Edgar Godineaux and tap artist Dormeshia, there lies a tale of an unrepentant user and abuser of others, manipulator of the truth, and master of denial.

I'll leave it to you to decide whether post-death redemption is earned, though personally I'd just as soon see Morton mull things over first during a very long time in hell. Director Robert O'Hara, who previously helmed Slave Play on Broadway, makes sure we see Jelly Roll pretty much at his worst, a light-skinned Creole man who is both drawn toward and repulsed by his Black compadres, including (perhaps especially) those who love him. Morton comes off as arrogantly self-important and ultimately self-destructive in a way that leaves some room for understanding but little room for sympathy, and his vitriolic racist diatribes are breathtaking.

So, trigger warning in place, let me spread the accolades deeply and broadly. One thing the production has borrowed from the likes of Ain't Misbehavin' or Eubie! is to bring in superlative performers who are given the opportunity to blaze in the spotlight for one or two numbers. Single out in this department Tiffany Mann as the character of Miss Mamie, who blows us away with "Michigan Water," and Leslie Uggams as Jelly Roll's blackhearted Gran Mimi, who viciously disowns him in a number called "The Banishment." Also giving a stunning performance is Alaman Diadhiou, who tap dances up a storm as Young Jelly, a far more sympathetic character than the man he is destined to become.

Nicholas Christopher (Pirelli in the Sweeney Todd revival) is a terrific singer and actor in his own right, and while his tap work is unlikely to erase the memory of Gregory Hines' performance of Jelly Roll Morton in the original Broadway production (in which Savion Glover, no less, appeared in the role of Young Jelly), he more than acquits himself in that department. Also turning in top-notch work are Joaquina Kalukango as Anita and John Clay III as Jack the Bear, both characters who are on the receiving end of Morton's scornful betrayal. Billy Porter, appropriately holding back from much of his often attention-garnering flamboyant portrayals elsewhere, is on hand as Chimney Man, our host in purgatory, there to sort out truth from fiction during Morton's stay.

The masterful work extends to the ensemble of singers and dancers, who include a trio of women known collectively as The Hunnies, played by the three who created the roles in the original Broadway production of the musical (Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Allison M. Williams). Costume designer Dede Ayite (seemingly everywhere these days) has provided a wonderful array of outfits, including, for Chimney Man, something Billy Porter himself might wear to a red carpet event. Clint Ramos' set design prominently features a multi-use Yoruba door, and guest musical director Jason Michael Webb brings out the very best from the musicians.

With these performances and design elements in place, and despite its dark themes and a somewhat weaker second act, this production of Jelly's Last Jam could sit very well on a Broadway stage. And that's saying a lot about how Encores! has evolved over its 30 years at City Center.

Jelly's Last Jam
Through March 3, 2024
Encores! at City Center, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: