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'Jelly's Last Jam' is a rollicking tale about fallible innovator
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'Jelly's Last Jam' is a rollicking tale about fallible innovator

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NBTF Jelly's Last Jam

Stanley Wayne Mathis, as Chimney Man, in “Jelly’s Last Jam” during opening night of the National Black Theatre Festival on Monday at the Stevens Center.

The structure and emotional arc of "Jelly's Last Jam" are as innovative as the man who inspired the musical, and the production by the N.C. Black Repertory Co. that opened Monday night provides a beautiful frame for Jelly's story.

PHOTOS: See a gallery of images from "Jelly's Last Jam" on opening night of the National Black Theatre Festival.

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, aka Jelly Roll Morton, was a ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer who is widely recognized as a pivotal figure in early jazz. He was jazz's first arranger, and his composition "Jelly Roll Blues," published in 1915, was the first published jazz composition.

These accomplishments give some credence to his insistent claim the he was "the inventor of jazz." That claim, however, caused resentment among his peers and is historically debatable.

George C. Wolfe wrote the script, Susan Birkenhead the lyrics. The music is all by Morton and Luther Henderson. The show opened in 1992 and won three Tony Awards, including one for Gregory Hines as Jelly and Tonya Pinkins as Anita.

At least two actors who created roles in the original production were in the audience: Keith David, who played Chimney Man, and Pinkins.

Admirably portrayed by DeWitt Fleming Jr., the Jelly in the musical is charming, troubled, infuriating and pitiable. Born into a proud Creole family in New Orleans, he is disowned by his grandmother when he is found to be playing piano in a brothel.

Though devastated by his banishment - in a chilling song called "The Banishment" - Jelly embarks on a highly successful performing career.

In the opening scene, ghostly lights come up on a set by Patrice Andrew Davidson, scenic designer, that suggests both New Orleans, with its wrought-iron railings, and also takes us to Chicago, New York and points in between.

Jelly backs onto the stage in the throes of death, and the show proceeds in flashback, narrated by Chimney Man, played by Stanley Wayne Mathis, who portrayed Jack the Bear in the original Broadway production. Chimney Man says he is "the concierge" of Jelly's soul.

The mood lifts quickly with two ensemble numbers by The Hunnies, three delightful featured dancers Janesia “Jai” Shanae, Cedrina Shari and Sidney Wilson; the ensemble; and Jelly: "Jelly's Jam" and "In My Day." 

"Michigan Water," with the dazzling Zikyyah Samuels Niang as Miss Mamie and Jontavious Johnson as Buddy Bolden, provides another buoyant performance. It leads to the doleful "The Banishment," performed by the menacing Gran Mimi in glorious voice.

We watch Jelly run through women, until he meets Anita, played by Idella Johnson, who appears to be more than a match for him, emotionally and intellectually.

"Last Chance Blues," Fleming and Johnson, and "Creole Boy," Fleming, are particularly heart-wrenching. In "Last Chance," Johnson sings that Jelly is dressed to the nines and six years out of style.

Fleming is a smooth, almost restrained, performer, both as a singer and dancer. He did the tap choreography, and it fits him like a well-worn slipper.

The stage gets a little brighter when Johnson makes an appearance with her terrific, rich voice and her confident physicality. When she sings "Play the Music for Me," the show has another mood change. Things seem to be perking up. But not for long. Jelly's fatal flaw appears to be his inability to love.

The two themes that capture my imagination are the idea that you can't give love if you didn't get love and the problem of racism within a race. Jelly torments and demeans his good friend Jack the Bear, well-played by Robert DoQui. Prepare yourself of liberal use of the "n" word. Doqui is an exuberant performer and a good match for Fleming in their duets. 

LG Williams II, as Young Jelly; Thomas Costello and David Ospina, as the Melrose Brothers; J. Andrew Speas, Jasmine Walters and Brandon Woods round out the cast.

Morgan Hawkins did the choreography that's a great combination of jazz and Broadway dance. Frenchie La’ Vern's costumes include red-sequin numbers for The Hunnies and adhere to the period in other cases. La' Vern picked up an Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design at the awards gala earlier in the evening. Arthur Reese is the lighting designer and technical director.

Tyrone Jackson leads the jam-up and jelly-tight orchestra and plays piano. 

Black Rep. Co. Artistic Director Jackie Alexander directs the show deftly, getting emotional performances from his actors in the midst of music and movement.

That is the show you would have seen if you had a seat on the lower level. I watched the first act in the balcony where the sound was muddy and the sight lines inconsistent; when action occurred far downstage or offstage, it couldn't be seen from above.

Some of those issues might get worked out as the show runs through Saturday, but, since all of the tickets are the same price, if you have a choice between first floor and balcony, you should definitely aim for the lower level. 

After intermission, I found a seat in the orchestra section, and the show was virtually perfect. 

lfelder@wsjournal.com

@LynnFelder

336-727-7298

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