Review: ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ at Signature Theatre

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The early days of American jazz come fully back to life in Signature Theatre’s Jelly’s Last Jam. But if the notion of spending two hours in the dark watching something historical sounds boring — not to worry. This raucous, flamboyant, and colorful story of Jelly Roll Morton, American jazz pianist, is as fascinating as the man himself. Signature Theatre’s reinvention of this 1992 Tony Award winner was a great choice to kick off its 2016/17 season. Jelly’s Last Jam is one slick production. It’s Broadway-quality with sass and class that was well-worth reviving and visiting.

Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) and Elijah Mayo (Young Jelly). Photo by Margot Schulman.
Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton) and Elijah Mayo (Young Jelly). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jelly’s Last Jam tells the tale, in flashbacks, of how Ferdinand Josephe La Mothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, rose from playing piano as a young kid in the whorehouses of New Orleans, to become a great America jazz pioneer. “Jelly Roll,” by the way, was African American slang for the female genitalia, and gives a not so subtle clue about the flavor of the man and this spicy show. Morton was a conflicted man, however, struggling with his identity as a colored French Creole mulatto in the American South who channeled his angst into a prodigious career as a pianist, bandleader and composer that helped create the syncopated, improvisational genre of American music known as jazz.

The Jungle Inn, a  speakeasy juke joint where flashy black women and lusty black men danced the night away to ragtime and blues,  was the starting point for unfolding Jelly’s life story.  The set by Daniel Conway was French Quarter style with a raised Spanish wrought iron balcony where a fine 6-piece orchestra sat (Darius Smith, Conductor,  Ed Walter, reeds, Jonathan Neal, trumpet, Christopher Steele, trombone, Gerry Kinkel, banjo, Bill Hones, bass, and Joe McCarthy, drums) framed by two lacy iron grate side staircases.

It’s interesting to note that Morton performed at the real Jungle Inn that’s in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC near 12th and U Streets, a part of the city known for its jazz roots. Jelly Roll Morton made DC one of his stops in a career that would take him to many dives, classy bars, and small band stages in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.  Conway’s cabaret style scenic design and intimate gas lamp lighting aura by Grant Wilcoxen created a cozy atmosphere where the audience was an integrated part of the set. Period costumes by Dede M. Ayite were glitzy glamourous befitting the times.

Signature’s Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner had a different idea for this production when he cast Mark G. Meadows as Jelly Roll Morton. Meadows has made a name for himself  as a talented young  jazz pianist but Gregory Hines, the original Jelly Roll, was a renowned rhythm tap dancer. Gardiner made a wise choice in choosing a jazz pianist for the lead, in my view, and Meadows was completely believable and totally natural playing the title role. I can only imagine the challenges he faced working with so many experienced Broadway dancers and performers, and singers who flooded the Max Theatre’s stage with their magnificent light.   Gardiner creatively filled in the tap dancing with a great crowd ensemble, other “Hunnies,” and outstanding male solo hoofers. It all worked.

Cleavant Derricks gave a standout performance as Chimney Man, the narrating spectre who foretells Jelly Roll’s misfortunes as a man unwilling to confront his demons.  Special commendation goes to Elijah Mayo who plays the young Jelly Roll Morton. This kid is a fantastic young actor who has a bright future in the theater ahead of him.

Act One had 14 songs and the opening,  “Jelly’s Jam” and “In My Way” set the scene for a production that had great movement and vibrant flow as the action shifted  between three circular stage areas connected by short platforms. The high-spirited crowd ensemble (Christopher Broughton, DeMoya Watson Brown, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., V. Savoy McIlwain, Olivia Russell, Joseph Monroe Webb, Stephen Scott Wormley) filled the stage with sizzling shim sham shimmy, flying swing-out Lindy Hop and rhythm tap dance choreography by Jared Grimes.

Strong vocals with original songs by Jelly Roll Morton were enhanced with additional music and musical adaptations by Luther Henderson. “Street Scene”, “Something More”, “The Chicago Stomp”, “Good Ole New York” and “Too Late Daddy” were boisterously joyous songs and the ensemble rocked the house with let-the-good-times-roll energy in several big tap dance production numbers.

Iyona Blake plays Gran Mimi, Jelly’s Creole grandmother who banishes young Jelly Roll from the family for not preserving “The Creole Way” when she finds out that he’s been playing piano at the local bordello. Iyona is a powerhouse vocalist with a stage presence that can be described as imposingly magnificent.

The love interest in Jelly’s Last Jam is Felicia Boswell who played Diana Ross in Broadway’s Motown and starred in the tour of Memphis. Boswell,] tackled the part of Anita with flirtatious feistiness and female grit that challenged even the strong-willed, overbearing Jelly Roll.

Felicia Boswell (Anita) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton). Photo by Margot Schulman.
Felicia Boswell (Anita) and Mark G Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton). Photo by Margot Schulman.

“Play Me the Music” and “The Last Chance Blues” were solo and duets that showcased the acting and singing talents of Felicia Boswell and Mark G. Meadows. They also sang tender duets in the course of unraveling a love tryst involving Guy Lockard as Jack the Bear, Jelly’s faithful but feared side kick.

Guy Lockard gives a superb performance as a character who is strong yet sensitive and part of the darker-hued community that Jelly Roll Morton struggles to deny with his light-skinned Creole roots.

Nova Y. Payton is terrific in dual roles as Miss Mamie, and one of “The Hunnies,” along with Kara-Tamieka Watkins, and Eben K. Logan, a troupe of colorful  characters who add  verve and spice to the lineup of people who inhabit Jelly Roll Morton’s sportin’ life.

Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man) with Kara-Tameika Watkins, Eben K. Logan and Nova Y. Payton. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man) with Kara-Tameika Watkins, Eben K. Logan, and Nova Y. Payton. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The final act, which is much shorter than Act One chronicles Morton’s gradual decline as his style of ragtime, blues, and jazz succumb to The Great Depression. The times and new tastes in American music steal his thunder and ultimately his life. There are only 5 songs in Act Two but the show ends on a high note. “The Last Rites” added New Orleans Dixieland Jazz to the funeral for the man who “invented jazz,”- Jelly Roll Morton. It was a rousing, big box celebration of life finale complete with cake walk dancing and colorful twirling parasols.

Jelly’s Last Jam is a gorgeous production that packs a wallop of song and dance into an intimately compact space. The show has a quick-paced earthiness that engages and enthralls.  And if you love musicals, Jelly’s Last Jam is relatively light on dialogue but filled with history and memorable music that’s probably older than most folks around these days. But that’s the beauty of a true classic.

Beignets and Gumbo remind me of New Orleans.  Now I can add Jelly’s Last Jam as one of those keepsakes that make me want to go revisit Bourbon Street and remember an American treasure through musical theater. Go see it!

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Jelly’s Last Jam that plays through Sunday, September 11, 2016 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat). While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education at the community college level. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Ramona is an avid theatregoer and filmgoer and is happy to be a member of the DCMetroTheaterArts writing staff.