×

Jelly’s Last Jam

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.

With:
Jelly Roll Morton - Maurice Hines
Young Jelly - Savion Glover
Gran Mimi - Freda Payne
Chimney Man - Mel Johnson Jr.
Miss Mamie - Cleo King
Anita - Nora Cole
The Hunnies - Tracy Nicole Chapman, Rosa Curry, Kena Tangi Dorsey
Jack the Bear - Stanley Wayne Mathis
The Sisters - Pamela D. Henry, Stacie Precia
The Ancestors - Carolyn Campbell, Sean Grant, Orgena Rose, Stepp Stewart
King Buddy Bolden - Ted L. Levy
Too-Tight Nora - Henry
Three Finger Jake - Tim Roberts
Foot-in-Yo-Ass Sam - Erich McMillan-McCall
The Melrose Brothers - Mark Enis, Michael Nostrand
The Crowd - Lisa M. Rickenbacker, Jimmy Tate, Campbell, Grant, Henry, McMillan-McCall, Precia, Rose, Stewart
Jelly's Red Hot Peppers - Kenneth Crutchfield, Gregory Royal, Stanton Davis, Bobby Eldridge

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.

Jelly's Last Jam

Shubert Theater, Boston; 1,698 seats; $60 top

Production: A Columbia Artists Management Inc. and Pace Theatrical Group Inc. presentation, in association with Nicholas Litrenta, Albert Nocciolino and the Troika Organization, of a musical in two acts with book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Musical adaptation and additional music, Luther Henderson. Executive producers, Aldo Scrofani, Gary McAvay. Produced in association with the Tennessee Repertory Theater, Nashville. Directed by Wolfe; choreography/associate director, Hope Clarke; tap choreography, Maurice Hines.

Creative: Sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Jules Fisher; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; hair, Jeffrey Frank; orchestrations, Henderson; musical direction, Linda Twine; mask and puppet design, Barbara Pollitt; production stage manager, Michael E. Harrod; musical coordinator, Seymour Red Press; general management, Niko Associates Inc.; casting, Julie Hughes & Barry Moss; company manager, Theodore Stevens. Opened, reviewed Nov. 8, 1994. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Jelly Roll Morton - Maurice Hines
Young Jelly - Savion Glover
Gran Mimi - Freda Payne
Chimney Man - Mel Johnson Jr.
Miss Mamie - Cleo King
Anita - Nora Cole
The Hunnies - Tracy Nicole Chapman, Rosa Curry, Kena Tangi Dorsey
Jack the Bear - Stanley Wayne Mathis
The Sisters - Pamela D. Henry, Stacie Precia
The Ancestors - Carolyn Campbell, Sean Grant, Orgena Rose, Stepp Stewart
King Buddy Bolden - Ted L. Levy
Too-Tight Nora - Henry
Three Finger Jake - Tim Roberts
Foot-in-Yo-Ass Sam - Erich McMillan-McCall
The Melrose Brothers - Mark Enis, Michael Nostrand
The Crowd - Lisa M. Rickenbacker, Jimmy Tate, Campbell, Grant, Henry, McMillan-McCall, Precia, Rose, Stewart
Jelly's Red Hot Peppers - Kenneth Crutchfield, Gregory Royal, Stanton Davis, Bobby Eldridge

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content