‘Jelly’s Last Jam’
Through Sept. 11
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
Jelly Roll Morton’s lifelong claim that he invented jazz, earned him a lot of his scoffs over the years. But there is some truth in his boast. His style and jazz compositions were widely mimicked. And though his was never a household name Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, Morton was indeed a jazz pioneer and his contributions to the burgeoning genre are lasting and vast.
A jazz pianist and singer who rose to great heights before sliding into virtual obscurity, Morton’s life was rife with innovation, energy and anger. In “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the 1992 hit musical penned by Broadway’s legendary and openly gay George C. Wolfe and now making its area premier at Signature Theatre, Morton’s story is told unflinchingly yet compassionately with a smart book and a dazzling jazz, blues and ragtime score based on Morton’s own tunes with striking newer lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.
When we meet Jelly (Mark G. Meadows), he’s dead, and Chimney Man (Cleavant Derricks), a top-hatted spiritual guide, is on hand to help him review his life. The journey begins in New Orleans, where Young Jelly (Elijah Mayo), born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe around 1890, strays from his respectable Creole family to play piano in some of Storyville’s more notorious whorehouses.
After his upright grandmother Gran Mimi (played by the suitably formidable Iyona Blake) shows him the door, 15-year-old Morton and his amiable pal Jack the Bear (Guy Lockard) roam through pool rooms and dance halls in search of easy money and women. Eventually the pair land in 1920s Chicago and this is where the memoir and Signature’s stirring production, staged by out director Matthew Gardiner, really take off. With his syncopated rhythms and new jazz sound, Morton’s nascent career skyrockets and so does his already healthy ego. Expensive suits, handmade shoes, fur coats and Cadillac cars become the norm. Women come in droves, but there’s no one special until he meets his match in the sexy and self-possessed singer Anita played by the sensational Felicia Boswell who brings down the house with her torchy “Play the Music for Me.”
Sadly Morton doesn’t carry his success gracefully — pride and lust get in the way. His words are cutting and his actions unkind. He lords his mixed European and black descent — the background he once rejected — over his African-American friends and colleagues. He belittles his boon companion Jack by insisting he wear a red usher’s jacket when working his club’s door, claiming it’s what best fits a dark-skinned black man. He’s equally unkind to Anita.
Next it’s off to New York City where Morton’s career falters. “Too Late, Daddy” expresses the public’s fickleness. Younger, up-and-coming jazz musicians are setting the tempo.
In the second act as Chimney Man further leads Morton on the path to self-discovery, the mood becomes quieter, more introspective. Bathed in blue smoky light, Meadows’ Morton plaintively sings “Creole Boy” as he seeks a sort of redemption.
Scenic designer Daniel Conway has transformed Signature’s Max space into the Jungle Inn, a two-tiered nightclub with a jazz band led by musical director Darius Smith perched on the balcony. The look is deco iron work and fabulous lighting fixtures featuring palm fronds and lion paws. Raised islands connected by walkways lined with dimly lit cabaret tables snake through the room. Dancers tap extraordinarily entertaining and story-telling moves choreographed by Jared Grimes.
Director Gardiner wisely cast Meadows, who is best known as a jazz pianist and singer in the role of Morton. He possesses a pure and pleasing voice and stunning prowess on the keyboard. And while his delivery is sometimes a little flat, he successfully conveys Morton’s conflicted character. And he looks that part. Together actor and director successfully take us into Morton’s head.
Gardiner is a on a roll himself. Recent terrific Signature musical productions include “West Side Story,” “La Cage Aux Folles” and now “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Theatergoers are left looking forward to his next project.