For Email Marketing you can trust

Jelly's Last Jam

A person in a blue vest and tie holding hands with a group of people in the background

Description automatically generated

Nicholas Christopher and the Company(Photo: Joan Marcus)


Jelly's Last Jam

At Encores! At City Center


By Julia Polinsky

Under the direction of Robert O'Hara, Jelly's Last Jam tore down the house for the two weeks of this revival of the musical about Jelly Roll Morton. The super talented cast and ensemble brought audiences to their feet with spectacular music, song and dance.

Encores! At City Center presents short-rehearsal, "staged readings" of musicals of the past. The original run of Jelly's Last Jam in 1992, a star vehicle for Gregory Hines and showcasing Savion Glover, received 11 Tony nominations and won three.

At some Encores! shows, the cast is on stage with scripts in their hands. Others, it's hard to believe they rehearse for only 10 days -- and Jelly's Last Jam is one of those. This amazing cast is giving a staged reading? Really? Too good! The band is TOO GOOD! The dancers, the choreography (Edgar Godineaux, with tap dancing designed by Dormeshia): too, too good!

What a pity Jelly Roll Morton (Nicholas Christopher) is not a more sympathetic character. Jelly's Last Jam starts with Morton's death; he then gets escorted on a private tour of his life -- a last jam -- by the supernaturally gorgeous Chimney Man (the smashing Billy Porter). Chimney Man is not much of a fan of Morton, and forces Jelly Roll to remember the things that hurt. So, there's the set-up: a harsh contrast between Jelly Roll's memories and mythmaking, and the painful truth that Chimney Man wants him to confront.

A group of people standing on a stage

Description automatically generated

The Company of Jelly's Last Jam (Photo: Joan Marcus)

We meet the young Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (the smashing Alaman Diadhiou), scion of a New Orleans French Creole family with light skin and a high-class education ("The Creole Way"). Ferdinand falls in love with New Orleans Black culture: the music, the dancing, the women, all seduce him. In a flashback masterminded by Chimney Man, the young Ferdinand and the remembering Jelly Roll have a superb moment of song and dance, pointing to the future ("The Whole World's Waitin' To Sing Your Song").

He pays a price for wallowing in Black life. He sneaks out of his grandmother's high-class home to wallow in the "low" culture until Grand Mimi (a breathtaking Leslie Uggams) throws him out of the house and the family, in a traumatizing withdrawal of all love ("The Banishment").

The self-reinventing Jelly Roll knows that he's great, and the world will hear his music, much of which is simply terrific; "That's How You Jazz,"" "Dr. Jazz"; "Lovin' is a Lowdown Blues". .


Soon, he and his pool hustling and music partner, Jack the Bear (the wonderful John Clay III) hit the road. While they travel and hustle and find success in Chicago, Jelly sets about forgetting that he has Black roots -- that he is a Creole of color. He's unspeakably, viciously, repeatedly racist to Jack, whose skin is much darker than Jelly's, and to Anita (Joaquina Kalukango), the woman he loves. As does Jack. The love triangle is too much.


Jelly leaves Chicago, Jack, and Anita, and heads for New York, where he expects to take the city by storm. Instead, he fails; musical tastes have changed since he "created jazz," and doors slam (terrific staging here), publishers want to steal his copyrights, Mob Guys want to own him. ("That's the Way We Do Things in New Yawk") He can't make it there -- and then, he can't make it anywhere.


Paul Niebanck, Nicholas Christopher, and James Patterson (Photo: Joan Marcus)


His crumbling later life gets short shrift in the second act; it's a pity the timeline for this sad end to his story isn't clearer. What is clear: he returns to Chicago and makes a play for Anita, which fails. He is cruel, again, to Jack the Bear. He leaves for Los Angeles, where he dies -- his death gets a small mention of its grim circumstances.

Jelly's Last Jam is a lopsided show, long and packed with a dozen great songs in the first act but short in the second. There are some showstopping numbers that seem to be there just to spotlight great performers. Just for one, Miss Mamie, (Tiffany Mann) belting the rafters loose in M"ichigan Water" with Buddy Bolden (Okiriete Onaodowan) on trumpet, no matter how stunning, does nothing to move the story along.



Contrast that with anything The Hunnies do -- they're the Greek Chorus in this show, three spectacularly talented performers (Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Allison M. Williams) commenting and moving the story along, as they dance, and slink, and sing, sing sing. The Hunnies are reason enough to see the show. Considering they were in the original cast in 1992, they are the real encore. Their "Lovin' is a Lowdown Blues" was a total knockout.

A group of women on a stage

Description automatically generated

Allison Williams, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs (Photo: Joan Marcus)

George C. Wolfe wrote the book for, and directed, the original production; his involvement is valuable beyond price. Morton's music has been re-structured by Luther Henderson so that it can be the jazz classics Morton wanted them to be. Original lyrics by Susan Birkenhead seem like they were always there.

From this miserable tale comes great music, good-looking staging (scenic design from Clint Ramos; costumes from Dede Aite), knockout dancing and super performances. There's talk of moving Jelly's Last Jam to Broadway '' that would be great. The world is indeed waiting to hear Jelly's song.


Jelly's Last Jam

Encores! At City Center

Next show in series: Titanic, June 11-23, 2024


Highlights reel: