The road company of “Jelly’s Last Jam” stars the brother of the Broadway version’s original lead. Maurice Hines filling Gregory Hines’ tap shoes isn’t the same as a production of “Hello! Dolly” starring Carol Channing’s sister (whoever she might be), though a production of “Funny Girl” starring Roslyn Kind might not be an inappropriate analogy. The show is a lot of fun, with a serious streak not lost on the local opening-night audience. Current production plays Pasadena Civic through Sunday.
B’wy version of show, which was developed locally at Mark Taper Forum, was nominated for 11 1992 Tony awards, winning only three — for its leading actors (neither of whom appear in this production) and for Jules Fisher’s lighting design.
Story is based on the bio of Ferdinand Le Menthe (Jelly Roll) Morton, the New Orleans pianist and composer who claimed to have invented jazz. A Creole, he refused to identify himself or his music with local blacks, the conflict that is main theme of George C. Wolfe’s incisive book. Music is drawn from repertoire of Morton (though doesn’t include any of his best-known tunes), with additional material by Broadway arranger-composer Luther Henderson and lyricist Susan Birkenhead, as well as a string of traditional blues lyrics here called “Michigan Water,” and King Oliver’s traditional standard “Doctor Jazz.”
As “Jelly Last Jam” begins, Morton has died (in Los Angeles in 1941) and has landed in The Jungle Inn, a limbo-like arena presided over by one Chimney Man (Mel Johnson Jr.) who states his position clearly: “From now on, your ass is mine.” Chimney Man escorts Morton on a tour of his own life, illustrating the composer’s womanizing, racism and a mean streak that’s a foot thick — as well as Morton’s talent as a musician and pool hustler, and his occasional charm.
Prominent additional characters include Jelly’s sometimes-girlfriend, Anita (Nora Cole), sidekick Jack the Bear (Stanley Wayne Mathis) and Jelly Roll himself as a young man (Savion Glover). Co-star billing notwithstanding, soul singer Freda Payne appears for one number only, as Morton’s Gran Mimi, who raises him and throws him out of the house for spending time in Storyville. Anita is the female lead, and Cole is very good indeed as is Mathis — the scene in which Anita vamps him as Jelly watches is one of the show’s highlights. Also worth special mention are Cleo King as bawdy blues singer Miss Mamie, Ted L. Levy as (real-life) legendary New Orleans trumpet player Buddy Bolden and Mark Enis and Michael Nostrand, who are very funny as the show’s only two Caucasian characters, the shady (and also real-life) Melrose brothers.
Tracy Nicole Chapman, Rosa Curry and Kena Tangi Dorsey appear as “The Hunnies ,” a sort of singing Greek chorus who appear throughout the show. Johnson is menacing enough as Chimney Man, though a little of his deep laugh (based on that heard in every TV commercial dealing with things Caribbean, it seems), goes a long, long way.
Glover, Mathis and Levy created their roles in the Broadway version; others, including Cole, have appeared in the New York run along the way.
Maurice Hines is a visceral dancer, whose singing and acting talents are certainly up to the role of Jelly, even if he doesn’t exactly overwhelm the audience. His dancing “battles” with Glover (who starred in “The Tap-Dance Kid” earlier in his career) are spectacular, as is the scene in which Jelly Roll turns a dance academy full of lead-feet into a roomful of twinkletoes.
Robin Wagner’s minimalist set is OK, with clever device similar to camera irising in Jelly Roll as finale; Toni-Leslie James’s period-evocative costumes are even better. Pasadena Civic’s sound amplification for this show is a real problem: echoing and muffled.