KPBS AIRDATE: December 7, 1994
It may be gone, but it’s not forgotten. The national touring production of “Jelly’s Last Jam” just closed at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. And it was scheduled to come into the Civic Theatre this week. That run was canceled, but there’s still talk of bringing the show to San Diego. So if all us musical theater fans collectively close our eyes and wish really, really hard, we may just make it happen. And we’d all be the better for it.
The 1992 Broadway creation of brilliant librettist/director George C. Wolfe, “Jelly’s Last Jam” is all about music and dancing — and both are rarely done better. But it’s also about sex and lust and passion, about racism and rejection, about self-aggrandizement and self-destruction. Jelly Roll Morton, born into the Creole gentry of New Orleans in 1891, proclaimed himself “the inventor of jazz.” He was a gifted pianist. And he did popularize the syncopated beat, combining African rhythms with blues, ragtime and the French opera which was the cornerstone of his early music education. But his brash, arrogant demeanor and the rapid evolution of jazz, made his star rise and fall with amazing speed. Only two years after he and the Red Hot Peppers became the top black recording artists for RCA Records, his music was already considered passé.
The play opens in 1941, on the day he died. Jelly wakes up at the Jungle Inn, which he’s told is “a lowdown club somewheres ‘tween Heaven and Hell.” His host is Chimney Man, a smiley, tuxedoed Devil played seductively by Mel Johnson, Jr., a man with enormous, expressive hands who glides, nearly floats, across the stage. Jelly has a chance to save his soul, but only if he tells his life story with honesty. Chimney Man challenges him at every false turn.
As Jelly, Maurice Hines is suave, swaggering and limber. He’s engaging, and his tap-dance numbers are flashy, but what’s missing is sheer, unadulterated charisma, the kind his brother Gregory brought to the role in New York. When Maurice dances with Savion Glover, who portrays Young Jelly, we can’t take our eyes off the fleet feet of the buoyant, boyish Glover, whose moves are incredibly agile and effortless. The ensemble dance numbers range from extremely high-spirited to very sexy, and the music does the same. There’s a nice interweaving of Jelly’s creations with traditional blues songs and new additions, but the highest highs and the best bluesy lows are always by Morton. Songs like “The Last Chance Blues,” “Play the Music for Me,” and “Lovin’ is a Lowdown Blues.”
The production is stark and simple, inventive and beautiful. Wolfe is always unconventional, and he rarely relies on technical wizardry to tell a tale in a provocative way, although the lighting design evocatively underscores the action. Wolfe yanks us along with his unpredictable non-linearity, and his inextricable link between music and dance. There are many joyful moments here, but they are offset by painful emotions. With a show-stopping centerpiece, it would be absolutely unforgettable. As is, it’s more than memorable.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.