The premiere of “Jelly’s Last Jam” in Boston began about 40 minutes late, the production having arrived a mite belatedly from its New Orleans’ stint. It was worth the wait, for this national company, which began its tour at Hartford’s Bushnell as recently as Oct. 25, is in fighting form, a boundlessly vital, personality-plus group of singers and dancers backed by a fabulous jazz band and elevated by wondrously quirky choreography and soaring direction. The final result is exhilaration — readily overcoming the musical’s pretentious concept, scrappy book and almost non-existent second act.
On tour, Maurice Hines has taken over the title role from his brother Gregory , who created it on Broadway. He plays jazz great Jelly Roll Morton as a laid-back lost soul while Limbo’s doorman, Chimney Man (Mel Johnson Jr.), leads him through the highlights of his life on the night of his death.
Hines gives an uncompromising performance that does little (perhaps too little) to compensate for Morton’s despicable behavior when he was alive (at least as it’s depicted in this show, which some critics have asserted distorts the truth).
For the “Jelly” tour, Hines has created his own tap choreography rather than using his brother’s, vividly contrasting the mature, smooth, almost soft-shoe approach he takes with the wildly youthful tap delivery of Savion Glover, from the Broadway cast, as young Jelly. Hines generously leads an ensemble cast, deferring to other performers when they’re asked to step forward and take over. This deference was sometimes taken too far at the performance seen, though that low-key quality may have been partly due to a sound system that, though blessedly not ear-splitting, didn’t allow enough of the lyrics and dialogue to emerge with sufficient clarity.
The entire cast is a wow, but in addition to Hines and Glover there are at least a large handful of performers who stand out, beginning with pop singer Freda Payne as a sensationally elegant Gran Mimi, the haughty Creole grandmother who banishes young Jelly from house and home. Payne created this role in the musical’s original Mark Taper Forum production in L.A.
Then there’s Nora Cole’s superbly characterized, voluptuously sexy Anita, the main woman in Jelly’s life (Cole was a Broadway replacement in this role).
Cleo King’s a truly red-hot Miss Mamie, all bounteous flesh and feathers. Stanley Wayne Mathis plays Jack the Bear (he created the role on Broadway), the partner toward whom Jelly behaves particularly viciously.
Mark Enis and Michael Nostrand are the show’s outrageously stereotyped New York Jewish Tin Pan Alley types. And Tracy Nicole Chapman, Rosa Curry and Kena Tangi Dorsey are the Hunnies, a statuesque trio of singers who, along with Mel Johnson Jr.’s grandly insinuating Chimney Man, comment on the action and do more than a little to add to the production’s sassy sexiness. (This national company was originally put together for a run at Nashville’s Tennessee Repertory Theater.)
All the dancing is blood-tinglingly effective, and throughout, Linda Twine (who conducted the show on Broadway) and her band offer a genuine history lesson in more than one aspect of the birth and maturation of jazz. Also throughout, director George C. Wolfe is right there pulling everything tightly together. The energy level is extraordinarily high.
Visually, the production is high style, from Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes to the hand-in-hand partnership of set designer Robin Wagner and lighting designer Jules Fisher. There are, in fact, times when it’s the lighting that sets the scene, often relying on multicolored stabs and shafts to slash through Fisher’s black Limbo from immediately above the stage. Many a highly dramatic effect is achieved this way.
Audiences at subsequent Boston performances will see one or two more Wagner backdrops and Fisher lighting effects than the opening night audience did because the stage was still being hurriedly set while the audience was being seated.
“Jelly’s Last Jam” may not be an easy sell on the road, but no one can accuse the cast or musicians of not giving their all — and then some.