In the Moment: ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ at Signature Theatre

What a way to blast open the new theater season. So take your seat at Signature’s bold, daring, muscular production of a tale about race and music, Jelly’s Last Jam. The 1992 musical is a journey into the experience and struggles of non-white America that is not-to-be-missed. It is a rare sighting. In fact, this Signature production is a DC area premiere.

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.

Under the assured hands of wizard Matthew Gardiner, the ambitious Signature Theatre production does not shy away one bit, or smooth away the cutting edges and sharp points of uncomfortable chapters in American racial history. The production should resonate with diverse audiences in these days of turmoil and turbulence in this all-consuming Presidential election year.

The production will absorb you into its message and the messengers from the moment you step into its stylish night club setting (by Designer Daniel Conway full of small tables, banquettes, a marvelous tree and fern covered curtain and lit in an amber glow by Designer Grant Wilcoxen. And there is a raised area, like a pathway to be journeyed. We come to know where we are as the Jungle Club. We are far, far away from Campbell Ave and Shirlington.

Now, if you don’t know Jelly’s original artistic creators well they have some major credits. Jelly’s Last Jam has its book by George C. Wolfe (who wrote the book and directed the recently revived Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed) on Broadway.

Music is by Jelly Roll Morton himself, with lyrics by Susan Brikenhead (who received a Tony and Grammy nominations for work on Jelly’s). Musical adaptation and additional music was composed by Luther Henderson (who received a Tony nomination for Best Score for Jelly’s).

The musical looks back into the life of the musical legend Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, 1890-1941) and the birth of that most American of musical forms; jazz. He was an artist who took what he felt and turned into a new music with its own rhythms, and percussive sounds. And for Jelly, jazz didn’t need to be written down as notes on a page to be only to be carefully followed. Jazz was improv too. Sounds you felt at that moment in time.

Jelly lived a life in which he did not admit the pain of his early years or how the world saw him. His life was one of trying to break through racial boundaries that had huge disheartening personal costs. My DCMTA colleague Ramona Harper has written a well-deserved 5-star review of Jelly’s Last Jam.

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.

Since this is a column, permit me to add to her review. With the inspired direction of Signature’s Matthew Gardiner and the creative team he brought together, Jelly’s Last Jam is a dazzler of entertainment with plenty to chew on during and after the performance. It is far more than “mere” entertainment by a well-accomplished cast. Musical Director Darius Smith and his 7-piece orchestra are a beautiful match for the Jelly Roll Morton score. The orchestra adds its own flair as we watch them enjoy making headway through the 18 musical numbers and, oh my gosh, the choreography by Jared Grimes – especially the stomps and tap over the wooden, and sometimes hollow core set floor – is beyond description. That the dances and full-cast production numbers are accomplished with seemingly no hesitation or out-of-breath appearance is non-peril. The singing chops of the cast are just something else again. From heart-breaking pain one moment and giddy delight the next. With love, hate and humiliation mixed in. After all love and life can be one sly dog.

Jelly’s Last Jam is a musical that should become a destination not only for regular theater-goers, but for those who may not attend much theater, and for those waiting for this year’s Best Musical and megahit to arrive in DC – Signature’s Jelly is a production with high production values, great music, and a passionately told story.

Jelly’s Last Jam is vivid and exciting. It is theater that has a fix on what theater can do so well to confront tough issues without pandering and preaching to patrons who likely already agree with the viewpoint being told.

Let me add as well, that this ambitious show is educationally enriching about lives scared by racism and a sadly unfruitful quest for love and understanding. If you are someone longing to see a story about lives less often depicted on DC area stages, this show must be seen.

Audience are well-rewarded in what the Signature Theatre Company has accomplished. Jelly’s Last Jam most assuredly plays the smoke that Morton wrote infused from his rough life.

For those who like virtually non-stop action, and want their music lively and soulfully expressive to go with a potent story with deep insights based upon real life, this is your opportunity. I trust Jelly’s Last Jam will find the wide, diverse audience it deserves.

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.

Under Matthew Gardiner’s vision and execution along with his cadre of creative and artistic talent, Jelly’s Last Jam left me with plenty of needed insights to ponder about the costs to an individual attempting to break through society’s racial and class barriers

A rousing shout-out to Signature Theatre for taking the risk to produce this DC area premiere of Jelly’s Last Jam.

Run and buy your tickets to the ‘Must See’ hit of the new theatre season!

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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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.