Although most of the songs are more than 60 years old, “Jelly’s Last Jam” is an original, exuberant and sometimes outrageous new American musical. And while it’s rooted in the New Orleans jazz of the ’20s, “Jelly” is a quintessentially ’90s show. It’s brash, vivacious, a little Angst-ridden and staged to within an inch of its life–all without ever being actually dangerous. If Broadway has room for an other big, splashy, tuneful crowd-pleaser, here it is.
“Jelly” marks the Broadway debut of George C. Wolfe, a director with a sensibility that’s at once in-your-face and congenial–an appealing combination, particularly for a musical in which the hero’s lovability quotient falls somewhere between Joey Evans and Sweeney Todd.
Wolfe also happens to be the author of the show’s book, which is conventional at best and completely falls apart in the brief second act.
Nevertheless, a show starring Gregory Hines and Savion Glover will showcase the best tap dancing to be seen anywhere. And Hines gives a nimble, suave yet impassioned performance as the pioneer jazz composer, pianist and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton.
Hines generates energy from his fingers and toes; it’s hard to believe anything negative could emanate from someone so dedicated to joyful high performance. But in Jelly Roll, he’s met his match: a complex character with a real mean streak.
Reduced to its essentials, “Jelly” reads like a cliched biotuner: Famous guy dies and lands in purgatory, where a skeptical intermediary reviews the evidence to determine in which direction the dearly departed should be sent.
True to form, there’s much more pleasure in the scenes in which the hero seems assuredly hell-bound than in the ones where he finds himself perilously close to self-awareness and rehabilitation.
A child of privilege, Morton was raised in a snobby Creole family. Classically trained, the young Jelly (Glover) finds escape playing piano in lowdown Storyville brothels and barrelhouses.
He synthesizes several black musical styles, designates himself the inventor of jazz and finds, briefly, fame and fortune in Chicago–not, however, before he’s been renounced by his scandalized family. Jelly, in turn, renounces his African ancestry, becoming the worst kind of racist in a society that will never accept him as anything but black.
In what is sure to be the show’s most talked-about sequence, Jelly humiliates his best friend, Jack the Bear (Stanley Wayne Mathis), whom Jelly suspects of sleeping with his lover. He presents Jack with a red bellhop’s jacket to wear on the night his new club is to open outside Chicago.
Wolfe follows it, however, with a stunning coup de theatre. The entire company appears in those same jackets, and in mock blackface, to close out the first act with an explosive dance number led by Hines to King Oliver’s “Dr. Jazz.” It’s a strategy worthy of Lenny Bruce: neutralizing an offensive stereotype by making it part of the accepted vocabulary (in this case, the dance vocabulary).
Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics for this and the other tunes are bawdy and ironic, managing to avoid caricature. Propelled by Luther Henderson’s muscular orchestrations, the music also seems non-stop. That’s great, because the dancing in “Jelly’s Last Jam” is wonderful.
Wolfe is served brilliantly by choreographer Hope Clarke, who’s as inventive with the big, fervid production numbers as she is sensuous during the more intimate interludes.
The sizzling tap choreography is by Hines and Ted L. Levy. It’s hard to imagine a better company to serve these ends. They know how to sing these songs, and every step is sure.
The standouts are Mathis’ dignified, warmhearted Jack; Tonya Pinkins, as the sultry girlfriend, Anita; Mary Bond Davis, as Miss Mamie, the vibrant mother substitute young Jelly finds in Storyville; and Ruben Santiago Hudson as Morton’s early musical influence, Buddy Bolden, the legendary cornettist who, a character says, “played notes only my black folks in heaven can hear.”
Keith David, with an odd white stripe down the middle of his face, is commanding as Jelly Roll’s no-nonsense guide, the Chimney Man.
Three sexy, black-clad women (Mamie Duncan Gibbs, Stephanie Pope and Allison M. Williams, known collectively as the Hunnies) form a sort of singing chorus.
Robin Wagner, who filled the stage of the Shubert Theater a few short weeks ago with his witty sets for “Crazy for You,” goes to the other extreme here, in an abstract mode reminiscent of his designs for “Dreamgirls.”
He lets a few lines of neon or a curtain of beads suggest the scene, in concert with Jules Fisher’s splayed and smoky shafts of light. The major exception is an early street scene dominated by a huge orange sun and lit with a fiery Southern Comfort glow.
There’s also great range in Toni Leslie James’ costumes. Some are tacky (those Hunnies) but the rest run the gamut from earthy in one scene to elegant in the next.
That leaves the show’s chief, but crucial, failing.
Wolfe’s book is at times aimless and repetitive. Worse, it never builds, content instead to unfold from scene to scene. There’s virtually no emotional payoff, despite the nasty truths that the Chimney Man forces Jelly to confront.
Worse yet, it collapses in the second act, in which the star is given too little to do. The result, despite the best efforts of Hines and company, probably runs counter to Wolfe’s intention.
Polished to a dazzling finish, “Jelly’s Last Jam” is almost sinfully pleasurable, without making any demands whatsoever on the heart.