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