‘Jelly’s’ shaking up Atlanta

Revival has done close to sellout business through run

In recent years, Atlanta’s Alliance Theater attracted national attention by hosting Broadway tryouts of “Aida” and “The Color Purple.” But this season, the company has kept its focus local and scored success with a revival of a neglected musical.

The Alliance production of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the 1992 tuner about ’30s jazz virtuoso Jelly Roll Morton, showed that a regional theater can turn out a Broadway-scale show, even without out-of-town funding. The revival has done close to sellout business through its monthlong run, which ended April 9.

While no immediate extension is possible, due to the Alliance season’s locked-in schedule, the theater is hoping other regionals will pick up its production for future engagements.

The Alliance has a long history of mounting African-American works, having staged everything from “Purple” to eight August Wilson plays. And for associate artistic director Kent Gash, getting “Jelly” back onstage has always been a priority. The show won three Tonys in 1992, including actor for Gregory Hines, but has been largely unseen since the tour that immediately followed its Broadway run.

“We all know as performers and artists of color that this is a great work, but it never gets done,” he says.

He partially blames that neglect on George C. Wolfe’s serious-minded book, which frankly addresses African-American sexuality and internalized racism as it tracks the life of jazzman Morton. When the show premiered, Gash claims, auds weren’t quite ready for the political and cultural questions that accompanied Morton’s jazz songs.

He compares “Jelly” with “Chicago,” another dark tuner that needed a few decades to become a sensation.

And he’s convinced the time is right for “Jelly.” “We have continued to see more and more complex portrayals of African-Americans,” Gash says, “and our audiences are smart enough to know that the African-American experience is actually the American experience.”

But getting local auds excited over a serious, largely obscure title — albeit one loaded with song and dance — required a careful strategy. The theater wanted to assure Atlantans they would get the same Broadway pizzazz they saw with tryout hits like “Purple.”

However, “Jelly” didn’t receive support from Rialto-minded producers, so staffers had to create buzz on a budget.

Gash declines to reveal the show’s pricetag, saying only, “It looks like we spent twice as much as we did.”

Steps were taken to make the massive show more fiscally viable (another factor that has kept it out of regional houses). The cast was reduced from 25 to 16, and the company got permission to rewrite the orchestrations for seven instruments instead of the original 20.

Filling out the cast, behind such Gotham notables as Billy Porter, was local talent. However, this was more than a cost-cutter: It was also crucial to the show’s marketing plan. The theater geared its campaign toward telling crowds “Jelly” was a unique, important experience they could have only in Atlanta.

Virginia Vann, Alliance’s marketing director, says a key strategy was starting a blog that chronicled every day of the show’s rehearsals and performances. “Atlanta loves to be in on the new,” she says; indeed, more than 5,000 people have logged on for Web updates.

Other tactics included an unusually strong television push and the creation of a “Jelly”-themed flavor at a local ice cream chain.

Apparently, the plan worked. Vann says previews played near 80% capacity and most later perfs were SRO. “We have had people coming up to say, ‘I’ll give you anything to get into this show,'” she reports.

This production’s success obviously could burnish the Alliance’s image as a house that doesn’t need Broadway’s imprimatur to create an event. And if more theaters follow with revivals, the company could seem downright prescient. (The Rodgers & Hammerstein Org recently simplified matters by acquiring licensing rights to the show from the creators’ various estates.)

Asked if there are plans to send this “Jelly” on the road, Gash coyly suggests backers were invited to the last week of perfs.

“Everyone is assuming that this is the beginning of something much bigger,” he says, “and I say, ‘From their lips to God’s ears.'”