Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Jelly's Last Jam opened on Broadway thirty years ago, on April 26, 1992. It scored strong reviews, especially for leading man Gregory Hines, who garnered a raft of awards for his performance as jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. The show lasted 569 performances–respectable, but far from a smash hit. I saw the original production not in New York, but on tour, with Hines' brother Maurice giving a star performance in the lead. I loved the show then, but there were discomforting moments drawn from the brazen manner in which this musical approaches the subject of racial identity. With the passage of the last thirty years, conversations about colorism, white fragility, and systemic racism have become more open. If we are not yet fully comfortable talking about these issues, we at least are not surprised by their presence in the public square.
Primarily comprising instrumental music by Jelly Roll Morton, with lyrics added by Susan Birkenhead, and a book by George Wolfe, Jelly's Last Jam begins with the musician's death in 1941. A character called Chimney Man appears, acting as a coach of sorts, challenging Morton to overcome the failings of his time on earth so that he can enter a better place. To this end, Chimney Man takes Morton back to his New Orleans childhood, where he was born Ferdinand LaMothe in 1890.
Though Ferdinand was mixed race, his family was Creole, which in that day signified they were native to Louisiana and held a higher social status than either foreign-born immigrant or formerly enslaved Blacks. In his prim and proper home, Ferdinand receives lessons in classical piano, but he is drawn to the ragtime and blues being played in the seamy side of town. At the age of fifteen, his strict great-grandmother learns about his misadventures and disowns him, leaving him homeless.
Cast out on his own, Ferdinand learns to live by his wiles and by his keen talent playing and writing songs. He restyles himself as Jelly Roll Morton, travels from town to town with his buddy Jack the Bear, and develops a reputation as a hot musician. Burnishing that reputation, Morton announces to the world that he is the inventor of jazz. He also claims to be totally of French extraction, denying that there is any "negro blood" in his veins. Jelly's Last Jam follows Morton's rise and fall, in music and in love, as those two lies overshadow every stop on his journey, clear to his encounter with Chimney Man.
The combination of Morton's engaging, syncopated music, Birkenhead's astute lyrics, and Wolfe's tightly framed book make for a show that catches the audience by their lapels and never lets go. Kelli Foster Warder directs and provides choreography for the production, creating a nonstop panorama that melds movement, music and storytelling. The choreography overall is terrific–jittery one moment, languorous the next–including great tap dancing. The "Dance in Isolation," in which an artistically frustrated Jelly Roll taps-off against his psyche, blows the roof of the Ritz.
Which leads straight to the powerhouse performance by Reese Britts as Jelly Roll Morton. I have seen Britts in a number of musical theater roles over the past few years, supporting or ensemble parts, doing consistently good work, but nothing that prepared me for this explosion of talent. Britt's singing is silky smooth, his footwork phenomenal (remember, the show originated as a vehicle for Gregory Hines, as good a musical theater dancer as ever there was), and he creates a distinctive persona for Jelly Roll, a hopeless tangle of deep insecurity and arrogance. In an especially winning scene his Jelly Roll stares face-to-face with his younger self (played by a charming Jordan M. Leggett), breaking into "The Whole World's Waitin' to Sing Your Song" as he introduces young Jelly to the earthy possibilities that await him.
While the size of the part allows Britts to shine the brightest light, every member of the cast does exquisite work. Sterling-voiced Andre Shoals is a less intimidating presence as Chimney Man, than I remember the role, but it works well here, using "tough love" to push Morton to examine his life and face harsh truths. Alexcia Thompson conveys just the right mix of sweetness and steel as Anita, who might have been Morton's one great love. Her lilting voice gives a winning delivery to "Play the Music for Me", and in "Last Chance Blues," a duet with Britts, their two voices blend so beautifully, adding to the heartbreak as they sing about lost love.
Dwight Xaveir Leslie makes a strong impression singing and dancing as Morton's faithful travelling buddy Jack the Bear, and Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Miss Mamie is a powerhouse singing "Michigan Water," corrupting young Ferdinand in the process. Deidre Cochran, as Gran Mimi, is chilling as she banishes Ferdinand. Time Brickey is the phenomenal featured dancer who counters Morton in "Dance in Isolation." Brickey also contributes tap choreography for the production. Everyone in the ensemble does terrific work as well, almost always incorporating movement into their characterizations and breaking loose throughout the show, with great dance scenes like the opening, "Jelly's Jam," "Too Late, Daddy," and the biggest crowd pleaser of all, "That's How You Jazz."
The show looks and sounds smashing. Eli Sherlock's set basically represents the Jungle Room, the waystation where Chimney Man and Jelly Roll meet, but with just a few moving pieces it becomes the dance halls, rehearsal rooms, and other locales in New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and points between. Craig Gottschalk's lighting aids in shifting scenes and differentiating the dark and bright moments in Morton's life. Jarrod Barnes has created great costumes that capture the era and the spirit of Morton's music, with a special nod to Chimney Man's devilishly dapper attire.
Composer and orchestrator Luther Henderson has made significant contributions to the show, both in taking Jelly Roll Morton's piano jazz and orchestrating it for musical theater without losing its raw feeling, and composing several additional songs for the show. For Latté Da, Sanford Moore serves as the production's music supervisor, and Tommy Barbarella conducts the tight five-piece band–piano, drums, reeds, guitar/banjo and bass–that delivers every song wrapped in the mood it is meant to convey, from jubilant ("That's How You Jazz") to wistful ("Last Chance Blues") to woeful ("Creole Boy").
Thirty years ago the world might not have been ready to fully embrace Jelly's Last Jam. The show is as good as it was then, but the times have made it more resonant, more urgent, while Foster Warder and her crew at Theatre Latté Da have ensured that it is also a colorful, tuneful, bountiful entertainment. Don't miss it.
Jelly's Last Jam runs through May 8, 2022, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $49.00. Student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID. Members of Actor's Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors; the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); and the Twin Cities Musicians Union, $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterLattéda.com.
Book: George Wolfe; Music: Jelly Roll Morton; Lyrics: Susan Birkenhead; Additional Music and Musical Adaptations: Luther Henderson; Director and Choreographer: Kelli Foster Warder; Set Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Jarrod Barnes; Lighting Design: Craig Gottschalk; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Makeup, Wig and Hair Design: Paul Toni; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Music Supervisor: Sanford Moore; Associate Music Director: Denise Prosek; Conductor: Tommy Barbarella; Music Arrangements/Orchestrator: Jason Hansen; Improvography and Additional Tap Choreography: Time Brickey; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Dialect Coach: Amani Dorn; Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Managers: Chloe Brevik-Rich and Austin Schoenfelder; Assistant Director: Jessica Staples; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Time Brickey (featured dancer/ensemble), Reese Britts (Jelly), Deidre Cochran (Gran Mimi), Julius Collins (Buddy), Gabrielle Dominique (Bunny 2), Cynthia Jones-Taylor (Miss Mamie), Anton Lamon (understudy), Jordon M. Leggett (young Jelly), Dwight Xaveir Leslie (Jack), Andre Shoals (Chimney Man), Jessica Staples (understudy), Alexcia Thompson (Anita), Brittany Marie Wilson (Hunny 1).