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A CurtainUp DC Review
Jelly's Last Jam

i was somethin' in My day / Really somethin' in my day — Jelly Roll Morton
. . . But if any man's tale deserves to be told, it's the Roll's— –Chimney Man
Mark G. Meadows as Jelly Roll Morton and Felicia Boswell as Anita (Photo credit: Christopher Mueller
In Jelly's Last Jam, the story of Jelly Roll Morton's life is introduced by the deep-voiced Chimney Man, Cleavant Derricks in an imperious performance. Dressed in an imposing top hat and tails, Chimney Man (the name's significance passed me by) welcomes Jelly Roll Morton to the afterlife.

Some of book writer George C. Wolfe's dialog and expressions — especially the use of the N-word — are harsh but accurate. That's how African-Americans talked back in that day. What is shocking is the first act finale as performers don doorman jackets and have minstrel-like face make-up and gestures. The surprise reminded me of the appearance of the ape in Cabaret.

Scenic Designer Daniel Conway has gone all out with a three-tiered stage, cocktail lounge atmosphere with members of the audience sitting at small tables around the bar that doubles as a dance floor. The atmosphere he creates is truly genuine. The set is enhanced by Grant Wilcoxen's lighting and Dede M. Ayite's glitzy costumes.

Eventually, the story goes backwards in time. A young Creole boy (played with charm by Elijah Mayo), whose mother has died and whose father has hit the road, is in the care of Gran Mimi, a formidable lady, proud of her Creole and French heritage. Gran Mimi, inhabited by Iyona Blake, whose strong presence fails to intimidate her ward. Jelly Roll (Mark G. Meadows), now a teen, takes to the seamier side of New Orleans and the hot, fast sound of the city's jazz. He gets work playing stride piano at the Jungle Inn, a sportin' house, otherwise known as a bordello. Nova Payton, a favorite of Signature Theatre directors and audience, gives a fine performance as Miss Mamie, the tough broad who runs the place of ill repute.

That down and dirty club, decked out in a deco style with tremendous gusto provides the background for a super high energy opening number. The dancers also sing but it is their dancing and the orchestra's blasting honky tonk music that carries the audience to the very different time and a very different place. As always at Signature, the seven-piece orchestra under Darius Smith's direction is excellent.

Many of the references in the music, the dance, and especially the dialogue in scenes set in the Jungle Inn, are spoken so fast and in a dialect that I found either foreign to my ears, over-amplified or both. Not that it matters since the music is so rich; the dancing as well.

Choreographer Jared Grimes has his actors giving so much of their energy in the first act, one wonders where they will find the strength and breath to continue. But they do — getting faster and funkier with each scene — until the last-but-one scene in the second act. Grimes is also to be commended for incorporating African-American dance: tap, the shimmy, strollin', smokin', black bottom and more African-American steps of the 1920's into his choreography.

Having whipped up a vocal and physical storm, the motion stops as Jelly Roll and the love of his life, which he realized too late, are reunited, briefly. Felicia Boswell gives a magnificent performance, in the style of Diana Ross whom she resembles. Her first act solo "Play the Music for Me" is heart-rending. Jelly and Anita's second scene together is much too long , but their duet "The Last Chance Blues" is well worth waiting for. It's that good.

After leaving New Orleans, Jelly Roll rides the rails with Jack the Bear (Guy Lockard, in a delightfully understated performance with nice touches of humor). Their stop in Chicago sets the scene for "The Chicago Stomp," another raucous number with Jelly, Chimney Man, The Hunnies (dancers who sing) and "The Chicago Crowd." In "That's the Way We do Things In New Yawk," a humorous number anchored by two men in fedoras placed low on their brows, probably mafia-style, is one of the show's best moments. Dey tough, those guys. Dey very funny. Dey stop the show.

Mark G. Meadows knocks the hell out of a piano. His playing makes magical sounds and his singing is ok but he's not an actor and it shows. His gestures are a bit forced and there are times when you feel he doesn't quite know what to do next with his body. As the role evolves from sweet kid to the arrogant s.o.b. who thinks he invented jazz. (He didn't, W. C. Handy did). Something more emotional is warranted.
Credit for how entertaining Jelly's Last Jam is due in part to the choreographer, but it is Director Matthew Gardiner who pulls the show together. He is no longer the "up-and-coming" hot-shot director of musicals. He's there already.

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Jelly's Last Jam
Book by George C. Wolfe
Music by Jelly Roll Morton
Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead
Musical adaptation and additional music composed by Luther Henderson
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Cast: Mark G. Meadows (Jelly Roll Morton); Cleavant Derricks (Chimney Man); Elijah Mayo (Young Jelly); Felicia Boswell (Anita); Guy Lockard (Jack the Bear); Iyona Blake (Gran Mimi); V. Savoy McIlwain (Buddy Bolden/Crowd); Nova Y. Payton (Miss Mamie/Hunnie); Eben Logan, Kara-Tameika Watkins (Hunnies); Christopher Broughton, DeMoya Watson Brown, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Olivia Russell; Joseph Monroe Webb, Stephen Wormley (Crowd.)
Music Direction: Darius Smith
Orchestra: Ed Walters (reeds); Jonathon Neal (trumpet); Christopher Steele (trombone); Gerry Kunkel (banjo); Bill Hones (Bass); Joe McCarthy (drums).
Choreography: Jared Grimes
Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Design: Grant Wilcozen Dance Captain: DeWitt Fleming Jr.
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. 703-820-9771;
From 8/02/16 to 9/11/16
Review by Susan Davidson based on August 10, 2016 performance.

Musical Number-Act One
Jelly's Jam (The Hunnies and Crowd)
In My Day (Jelly and the Hunnies)
The Creole Way (The Ancestors and Young Jelly)
The Whole World's Waitin' to Sing Your Song (Jelly and Young Jelly)
Street Scene (Jelly, Young Jelly and Street Crowd)
Michigan Water (Miss Mamie and Buddy Bolden)
The Banishment (Gran Mimi, Young Jelly and Jelly)
Somethin' More (Jelly, Jack, Chimney Man, The Hunnies and Crowd)
That's How You Jazz (Jelly, Jack, and Dance Hall Crowd)
The Chicago Stomp (Jelly, Chimney Man, The Hunnies and Chicago Crowd)
Play the Music for Me (Anita)
Lovin' is a Lowdown Blues (The Hunnies)
Dr. Jazz (Jelly and Crowd)
Musical Number-Act Two
Good Ole New York (chimney Man, The Hunnies, Jelly and the New York Crowd)
Too Late, Daddy (Jelly and Harlem Crowd)
That's the Way We Do Things in New Yawk (Jelly and New York Crowd)
The Last Chance Blues (Jelly and Anita)
The Last Rites (Jelly, Chimney Man and Crowd)

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