Friday, March 1, 2024

Jelly’s Last Jam – Hopefully Not Truly The Last

Reviewed by Judd Hollander 

The trick when presenting a biographical vehicle is to make sure the audience is able to relate to the subject in question. Especially if that subjects happen to be, in the words of director Robert O’Hara, “sexist, prejudiced, colorist, misogynist and elitist.” Fortunately, the Encores! production of the 1992 Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam, about the life of jazz pioneer Ferdinand Le Menthe “Jelly Roll” Morton (1891-1941), is able to do exactly that, and more. Strongly directed by O’Hara, this deeply stirring presentation can be seen at New York City Center through March 3rd.

The story takes place at The Jungle Inn, “a run-down club somewhere's ‘tween heaven n’ hell,” where Jelly Roll Morton (Nicholas Christopher) has been summoned in the immediate aftermath of his death. He’s greeted upon his arrival by the no-nonsense Chimney Man, (Billy Porter, in a superlative performance); a being who will make the determination of exactly where Jelly will spend eternity. Chimney also has no patience for Morton’s airs of self-assurance and superiority. Both of which Jelly wears like a protective second skin. Not to mention his habit of continually stretching the truth. Like how he claimed to have invented jazz.

Nicholas Christopher in the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

As Jelly waits to learn his fate, he finds himself reliving pivotal moments from his past. Such as the passion when he first hears musician Buddy Bolden (Okieriete Onaodowan) playing the cornet one night in New Orleans; the joy at reconnecting with an old friend (John Clay III); and the anger he feels when he believes himself betrayed by those closest to him. There’s even a moment of wonder when he finds himself face to face with himself as a young man (Alaman Diadhiou). The younger Jelly having the same amount of swagger and bravado as his older self.

More than just a straight through-line story of Jelly Roll Morton, the musical paints a picture of the title character as a deeply tormented soul. One with a fear of rejection so acute, he instinctively pushes away anyone he fears might someday hurt him. This fear stems in part from a long-ago trauma when, as a teenager, he was disowned by his grandmother (Leslie Uggams) for playing in a local bar and disgracing the family lineage. Morton’s continual fixation of his Cajun roots from that point on, and thus seeing himself as “better” than other people of color with whom he interacted with, might also have been an attempt to reclaim that part of his heritage he feels was taken from him.

Leslie Uggams in the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

We also see flashes of Jelly’s artistic integrity throughout the story. As evidenced by his musical contributions to the art form of jazz; and also his strong business sense. He often refusing to sign deals with record companies unless he had control over his material. It was an arraignment that worked well when he was turning out hits. However as times and musical styles changed and other jazz greats began coming up through the ranks, Jelly finds his star power beginning to wane.

While the story offers more than enough material to hold one’s attention, George C. Wolfe’s book does feel a bit rushed at points. Particularly in the much shorter second act. What makes the show stand out is the excellent orchestrations by Luther Henderson, (additional orchestrations by Daryl Waters and William David Brohn), Edgar Godineaux’s marvelous choreography, and a top-notch cast.

Nicholas Christopher and the company of the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

Christopher is perfect as Jelly Roll Morton. The actor imbuing the character with a strong sense of style and swagger, plus more than a bit of narcissism and ego. All of which hide the insecurities he carries inside. These sometimes competing factors show Jelly to be a complicated individual always striving for the next big thing. While at the same time always running from what he has lost.

Joaquina Kalukango is excellent as Anita, the great love of Jelly’s life, and also someone who can give as good as she gets whenever they have an argument. She’s also the only person Jelly is comfortable enough with to confide in. Their quiet moments together offer the audience an important bit of insight into Jelly’s tightly controlled persona. Elsewhere, Clay is nicely amicable as Jelly’s longtime friend Jack the Bear; while Diadhiou does a nice job as Young Jelly. Also quite good is Onaodowan, who gives an effective performance as Bolden.

Nicholas Christopher and Joaquina Kalukango in the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

Among the highlights in the score is the torch song "Play The Music For Me," beautifully sung by Kalukango. Other memorable tunes include "Michigan Water," in a rendition by Onaodowan and Tiffany Mann; the rousing "The Whole World's Waitin' to Sing Your Song", delivered by Christopher and Diadhiou; and the poignant "The Banishment, strongly put across by Leslie Uggams. Also quite good is the mournful “The Last Chance Blues,” sung by Christopher and Kalukango. Though there are a few times when the music tends to drown out the lyrics, thus lessening the number’s overall impact.

From the performances to the music to the message, there is quite a lot to unpack in the Encores! production of Jelly’s Last Jam and it is certainly worth checking out.

Jelly’s Last Jam

Featuring: Nicholas Christopher (Jelly Roll Morton), John Clay III (Jack the Bear), Alaman Diadhiou (Young Jelly), Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, Allison M. Williams (The Hunnies), Joaquina Kalukango (Anita), Tiffany Mann (Miss Mamie), Okieriete Onaodowan (Buddy Bolden), Billy Porter (Chimney Man), Leslie Uggams (Gran Mmi)

Ensemble: Raymond Baynard, Shawn Bowers, Amanda Castro, Joshua Dawson, John Edwards, Ari Groover, Morgan McGhee, Jodeci Milhouse, Ramone Nelson, Paul Niebanck, James Patterson, Antonia Raye, Salome Smith, Taylor Mackenzie Smith, Funmi Sofola, Jordon Simone Stephens, Renell Anthony Taylor, Nasia Thomas, Sir Brock Warren, Chanse Williams

Book by George C. Wolfe

Music by Jelly Roll Morton

Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead

Musical Adaptation & Additional Music Composed by Luther Henderson

Arrangements & Orchestrations: Luther Henderson

Additional Orchestrations: Daryl Waters & William David Brohn

Scenic Designer: Clint Ramos

Costume Designer: Dede Ayite

Lighting Designer: Adam Honoré

Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama

Hair & Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas

Music Coordinator: Kimberlee Wertz

Production Stage Manager: Karen Moore

Casting by The Tesley Office, Destiny Lilly, CSA

Score Consultant: Daryl Waters

Choreographer: Edgar Godineaux

Tap Choreographer: Dormeshia

Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra

Guest Musical Director: Jason Michael Webb

Directed by: Robert O’ Hara

Presented at New York City Center

131 West 55th Street

Tickets: 212-581-1212 or 

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission

Closes: March 3, 2024

Friday, February 2, 2024

Once Upon A Mattress - Sheer Perfection

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Every once in a great while, all the elements in a theatrical production align perfectly. So it is with the Encores! Production of the 1959 musical comedy, Once Upon A Mattress. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the show - with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer - can be seen at New York City Center through February 4.

The year is 1428 and there is great unhappiness among the people in a far-off mythical kingdom. For until Prince Dauntless (Michael Urie) takes a wife, no one in the realm is permitted to marry. Though there were many princesses from neighboring kingdoms who sought the Prince’s hand, everyone candidate so far has failed a test of character set by his mother, Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris). 

(L-R) Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson and Nikki Renée Daniels in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

The laws of the kingdom also state that once the Prince weds, he becomes King; therefore the current King and Queen must abdicate. But Queen Aggravain has no intention of ever ceding power. Her husband, King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly) has nothing to say on the matter. This due to the fact he was struck mute years earlier as the result of a curse. Much of the backstory explained by the court's Jester (J. Harrison Ghee), who also serves as the narrator of the piece as he works to separate fact from fiction regarding unfolding events.

Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), a Chivalric Knight of the Realm, is determined to marry his true love, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels), and so sets off to find a suitable bride for the Prince. Harry and his Lady's efforts born of desperation when she learns she is going to have a baby. Fortunately, Harry is able to find an available princess. However it soon becomes apparent the woman in question, one Princess Winnifred (Sutton Foster), may not exactly be royalty material.

                         Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress."  Photo: Joan Marcus.

Princess Winnifred comes from a less-than-fashionable domain. One filled with marshes and swamps. Where the biggest thrill is watching mosquito larvae; and where items such as soap and houses with roofs are considered luxuries. Her first meeting with Queen Aggravain, Prince Dauntless and rest of the royal court - this after she swims the castle moat in her eagerness to meet the Prince - calls to mind the Beverly Hillbillies crashing a fancy ball in a Jane Austin novel. The Queen is horrified beyond words at Winnifred’s unkempt appearance and lack of proper etiquette. Prince Dauntless, one the other hand, is instantly smitten with her. An attraction the Princess quickly returns. 

Determined Winnifred will never marry her son, the Queen plans to place a tiny pea underneath 20 mattresses upon which the Princess will spend the night. If Winnifred does not feel the pea when she goes to sleep, she will be have failed the test and be sent on her way. Though determined as the Queen may be that the Princess fail, there are those just as determined she succeed. This leads to a continual battle of wits with the future happiness of the kingdom hanging in the balance.

                         Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once Upon A Mattress can best be described as a cheerful romp where everybody gets exactly what they deserve. Eventually. Also stressed is the need to stand up for whatever and whoever you believe in, regardless of the consequences for doing so. It also has a book extremely on the lightweight side. Thankfully, the production’s other creative elements make it all imminently watchable. Especially thanks to its winning cast.

From the moment she first appears, Foster completely nails the role of Princess Winnifred. The character equal part determination and homespun naiveté. Most importantly, Foster is able to bring forth the extensive physical comedy required for the part. From struggling to climb the castle wall to wrestling with the 20 mattresses as she tries to find a comfortable place to sleep.

(L-R) Michael Urie and Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Urie is great fun as Prince Dauntless. A misfit who proves the old adage there is somebody perfect for everyone. A point made clear in his scenes with Winnifred. Dauntless is also the character who matures the most as he learns to step away from his mother’s control and become a man in his own right.

Harris wonderfully embodies Queen Aggravain, the comedic villain of the piece. A woman determined to keep a tight hold on her power by any means necessary; yet also the perfect straight woman for Foster ("you swam the moat?") and anyone else in her orbit. 

J. Harrison Ghee in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress."  Photo: Joan Marcus.

Ghee is a real treat as the Jester. A person who basically owns the stage whenever seen on it. Striding rather than walking, with a "try to get in my face and see what happens" air, Ghee imbues the Jester with an attitude of loyalty to those who deserve it: an insider’s knowledge of exactly what is going on at all times: and an unassuming ability to make sure events turn out the way they are supposed to. This despite anyone's plans to the contrary. 

Daniels and Jackson work well as Lady Larken and Harry. Two people very much in love, though it's Larken who has more on the ball mentally. Harry a bit more befuddled, in a good-natured way and also perhaps a bit too obsessed with his title. Elsewhere, David Patrick Kelly does a nice turn as the silent King and plays off well against Ghee and Urine in their scenes together.

          (L-R) Harriet Harris and Francis Jue in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

The direction by Lear Debessonet is excellent. Her efforts reveal a firm grasp of the material as she takes things almost but not quite over the top into parody. As well as reining in the cast just enough to make the characters and situations real enough to care about. Credit must also go to Lorin Latarro's enjoyable choreographic work and Andrea Hood's costumes. The latter of which add vibrant splashes of color to the proceedings.

The score is fun, if not particularly memorable. Highlights include Foster singing "Happily Ever After," a riff on other fairy tales heroines; and “Shy,” a comical ballet where she proves Winnifred is anything but. There’s also Ghee's delightful work in "Very Soft Shoes," a wistful number calling to mind the Jester's father. Also quite good is the comic love duet "Yesterday I Loved You," as sung by Larken and Jackson. A tune which has more than a few echoes of “You’re Awful” from the 1949 movie version of On The Town.

Michael Urie, Sutton Foster and the company of Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." 
Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once Upon A Mattress offers fluff and merriment, with a batch of songs and a gentle morale or two. To its credit, the show doesn’t try to be anything more, and for this production, that is all that’s needed.

Featuring: Nikki Renée Daniels (Lady Larken), Sutton Foster (Princess Winnifred), J. Harrison Ghee (Jester), Harriet Harris (Queen Aggravain), Cheyenne Jackson (Sir Harry), Francis Jue (Wizard), David Patrick Kelly (King Sextimus the Silent), Michael Urie (Prince Dauntless)

Ensemble: Shavey Brown, Demarius R. Copes, Kaleigh Cronin, Cicily Daniels, Ben Davis, Ta’nika Gibson, Gaelen Gilliland, Jaquez, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Paul Kreppel, Amanda Lamotte, Abby Matsusaka, Adam Roberts, Ryan Worsing, Kristin Yancy, Richard Riaz Yoder

Once Upon A Mattress

Music by Mary Rodgers

Lyrics by Marshall Barer

Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller & Marshall Barer 

Scenic Designer: David Zinn

Costume Designer: Andrea Hood

Lighting Designer: Amith Chandrashaker

Sound Designer: Kai Harada

Hair & Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas

Physical Comedy & Effects: Skyler Fox

Music Coordinator: Kimberlee Wertz

Production Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard

Casting by The Telsey Office, Bernard Telsey, CSA, Craig Burns, CSA

Orchestrations by Hershy Kay, Arthur Beck & Carrol Huxley

Concert Adaptation by Amy Sherman-Palladino

Choreographer: Lorin Latarro

Featuring The Encores! Orchestra

Music Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell

Director: Lear Debessonet


Presented by Encores! at City Center

131 West 55th Street

Tickets: 212-581-1212 or 

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission

Closes February 4, 2024

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

A Matter of Faith - Where Just Having Conviction Is Not Enough

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The question of faith and what it represents can be found at the core of Ian Richard Barnes' very intense and sometimes talky drama, A Matter of Faith. Presented by Reckless Few Theatrical Productions at the Chain Theatre, this is definitely not a work for the faint of heart.

The story opens in the squalid basement home of Seamus (Henry Frontini), a longtime drug addict. Seamus has fallen so far, he has completely given up on life and just wants everything to end. Temporary salvation arrives, ironically, in the form of his supplier, Kenley (Barnes). Seamus it seems, owes him money and Kenley has no intention of letting him go anywhere until matters between the two are resolved.

(L-R) Ian Richard Barnes and Henry Frontini in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

The story eventually shifts to The Beacon, a rehabilitation facility/halfway house where Kenley has now been living for over a year. He claims his triumph over his own demons occurred once he learned to let Jesus into his life. Though Izzy (Ava Paris Locknar), a recovering addict who works The Beacon overnight shift, clearly doubts this. Kenley seemingly just talking the talk when it comes to salvation, rather than actually having done the work necessary for recovery. Not to mention his trying to flirt with Izzy while keeping out of sight from people still looking for him. Izzy also considers the place where Kenley claims to have started his rehabilitation process a questionable one at best. 

Matters come to a head with the arrival of Seamus' brother, Patrick (Frontini). A former priest and current alcoholic, Patrick is wracked with guilt over his refusal to be his brother’s lifeline until he gets serious about fixing himself. Now the only thing Patrick wants is to find comfort through the teachings of the Bible. Kenley however, who is seeking his own form of forgiveness, has other ideas.

(L-R) Henry Frontini and Ava Paris Locknar in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

As the play makes clear, the idea of finding something to believe in, be it faith, self-awareness or whatever you want to call it, means nothing unless one is willing to do the work needed to begin the process of healing. Something Kenley and Patrick have yet to come close to achieving. It’s a credit to the story that for all the continual talk about what faith does or does not mean, one never gets the feeling the playwright is trying to impose his own particular point of view on the characters he's created.

While much of what unfolds is very good, with the audience often on the edge of their seats as they wait for the next potential explosion to occur, the show’s quieter moments tend to drag somewhat. The various discussions in regards to the different perceptions of faith, while involving, could easily have been trimmed as a sameness in these conversations soon emerges. In addition, the opening sequence between Seamus and Kenley might have worked better if it were folded in later as a sort of flashback and interspersed with the action at The Beacon rather than a standalone scene. Something for the creative team to think about before the play’s next incarnation.

Barnes is the standout of the cast. His performance embodies Kenley with an angry nature that continually simmers just below the surface. One which threatens to erupt at any moment. Conversely, he’s also someone you want to like at times, with his wisecracks and seemingly jovial attitude, but also a person you do not want as an enemy. Especially as his so-called attempts to make amends can be quite disconcerting, to say the least.

(L-R) Ian Richard Barnes and Henry Frontini in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

Frontini is riveting as Seamus, a tormented soul who knows that he has destroyed his life. The scene where he swears that the "fix" he is about to give himself will really and truly this time be the last one he ever takes is heartbreaking in its intensity. He also does well as Patrick, a man who carries feelings of anger inside he never knew he had, and ones he must be willing to face before he can finally begin his own healing process. 

                            Henry Frontini in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

Barnes and Frontini's performances are helped tremendously by director Augustus Childres' understanding of exactly what these two characters are capable of and allowing the actors to play off each other brilliantly in their scenes together.

Locknar is fine as Izzy, the bit of stability Kenley and Patrick revolve around. A woman who has learned to temper her compassion for her fellow addicts with a no-nonsense resolve when it comes to rule-breaking on her watch. While also never afraid to open up about her own struggles, and admitting there is still much that she can learn.

A Matter of Faith looks at the process broken people go through as they try to reclaim their lives. Not an easy play to watch, it offers a powerful message about healing, recovery and what must be done before becoming whole is even a possibility.

Featuring: Ava Paris Locknar (Izzy), Ian Richard Barnes (Kenley), Henry Frontini (Seamus & Patrick).

A Matter of Faith

An original play by Ian Richard Barnes

Presented by Reckless Few Theatrical Productions

Production Stage Manager: Kimberly Van Vo
Sound Design: Sam Henry
Lighting Design: Lauren Lee

Directed by Augustus Childres

The Chain Theatre

312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor


Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission

Closes: February 4, 2024