About 20 minutes into "Jelly's Last Jam," Gregory Hines, as Jelly Roll Morton, and Savion Glover, who plays Morton as a child, begin a tap duet. They tap on their toes, on their heels, and, in a step that must require unearthly elasticity in the shinbone, on the sides of their feet. The joy they generate is electrifying.
This explosive dance number typifies what is best about "Jelly's Last Jam." Much of the show is a glorious tribute to the musical culture of New Orleans.
Ostensibly a biography of Morton, the show is set in Heaven, where his life is being scrutinized by the Chimney Man, an embodiment of black show business tradition, played with unutterable elegance by Keith David.
My own understanding of jurisprudence at the Pearly Gates is that Anglo-Saxon procedures were used, that there are angels for both the prosecution and the defense of the newly arrived. In George C. Wolfe's Heaven there is only prosecution.
Wolfe's book hammers relentlessly at Morton's arrogance and his seemingly pathological hatred of blacks who are darker skinned than he is. The racism of blacks against other blacks is an unlikely undercurrent for a musical, but Wolfe raises it to a level of importance that may not be warranted by the facts.
In Wolfe's version Morton is raised in a prissy Creole household and only goes slumming when he is a young man. In Morton's own account, his first encounter with the gritty side of New Orleans came at the age of six months, when a godmother made him the unwitting sidekick of "a sporting woman."
In his brilliant revue, "The Colored Museum," Wolfe had a biting sketch in which an upwardly mobile black had to jettison the funky toys of his youth to retain respectability. The one thing he regrets is a Temptations record, and when he opens the garbage can to retrieve it, a surly street black - a spectre of everything he wants to put behind him - grabs his arm and yells, "Gotcha!"
This juxtaposition is crucial to Wolfe. In "Jam," Morton is always disparaging the earthy culture he imagines is alien to him. But the street and the bordello were the roots that nourished his art. Morton - in both his own account and Wolfe's - claimed to be the inventor of jazz and disparaged his rivals. This, I suspect, was the kind of banter Muhammed Ali used to beguile the press.
If anyone but Gregory Hines played Morton, the effect of Wolfe's unrelenting portrait might be deadly. But Hines has a grace that makes him sympathetic even as Morton's behavior becomes increasingly ugly. His dancing has never been more effortless or more exhilarating.
The supporting cast - a true ensemble - is extraordinary. Tonya Pinkins, as the only woman who can handle him, is a singer and actress of great magnitude. Mary Bond Davis sings the blues sensationally. (The authentic Morton material, needless to say, is far stronger than the new songs.) Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Anne Duquesnay do impressive star turns, and Stanley Wayne Mathis is wrenching as Morton's closest friend, the man he treats the most cruelly.
Robin Wagner's sets are almost self-effacing in their simplicity, but every object evokes the past hauntingly. The sets - and Jules Fisher's lighting - help tell the story cinematically. Toni-Leslie James' costumes also convey this rich world through a rigorously limited palette.
Jazz is a subterranean stream nourishing American culture. Just as it enriched Morton in spite of his "racist" attitudes, it provides an incandescent frame for Wolfe's harsh portrait.
The name was Ferdinand Le Menthe Morton - better known as Jelly Roll. He was a womanizer, great pool-player, dapper, mean and vain. When he grinned wolfishly, Fort Knox glinted from out of his mouth, and he had a diamond implanted in his front incisor.
He developed his piano playing in a Storyville brothel, and he thought the Creole aristocracy of New Orleans, of which he was a sometime scion, were white. He also imagined that he had invented jazz, but flopped when he couldn't even keep up with the invention.
But when he played ragtime, going into "The King Porter Stomp" or "The Pearl" - the world stopped spinning just to listen to a filigree of sounds scattered like a carefully broken heart. He was a genius. Listen to the recordings. Or, better yet, go at once to "Jelly's Last Jam," an extraordinary musical theaterpiece, celebrating the music while dissecting the man, which opened last night at the Virginia Theatre.
It is as brilliant as Jelly's music and as dazzling as Jelly's smile, and the most original musical to hit Broadway in years.
There are three heroes - its star, the wonderful Gregory Hines at full stretch; its musician, Luther Henderson, who, with a wonderfully strong assist from lyricist Susan Birkenhead, has made Morton's red-hot-peppered, idiosyncratic music suitable for Broadway, without tampering it or tampering with it; and its hero of heroes, its playwright and director, George C. Wolfe.
It was Wolfe who conceived the play. He has taken a hokey concept of Jelly at point of death being confronted by the Chimney Man (a sort of Voodoo devil keen on final reckonings - and a superbly authoritative performance by Keith David) and being apparently treated to an episode of "This is Your Life."
But no sooner has the heart sunk than it jolts into life, as Wolfe, Henderson (who not only adapted the music but also composed links and segues) and Birkenhead get down to business. And what is truly fascinating about "Jelly's Last Jam" is that it is not just fun - and, boy, fun it is - it is also serious fun.
I don't know whether to praise Wolfe more as a playwright or as a director, for the two functions are here so perfectly merged. Without the other, neither would really exist - does, for example, the apotheosis ending (as thumpingly moving as anything to be encountered in the current theater) offer us Wolfe as playwright or Wolfe as director?
And his autonomy spreads over the show to his collaborators - the elegantly spare scenery by Robin Wagner, the flouncy period costuming by Toni-Leslie James, the astute and confident choreography by Hope Clarke (tap choreography by Hines himself and Ted L. Levy) and the ever able lighting by Jules Fisher. No touch is spared or missed.
The dynamics of the show are, of course, provided by the music (note the pacings and the tensions of Henderson's orchestrated patchwork) and the cast. And the cast comes through like a great family fiesta.
Hines is basically far too genial a performer to be a natural Morton, but Wolfe provides him with a steel-mean backbone, and the performer (one of Broadway's all-time great entertainers) and the actor do the rest in a riveting portrayal.
But everyone is splendid - David, I've mentioned, but there is also Tonya Pinkins as Jelly's sassy woman, Savion Glover perfectly charming as Jelly's younger self, Stanley Wayne Mathis as his bullied side-kick, Mary Bond Davis as a great old blues singer, and Mame Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope and Allison M. Williams as three voluptuously sexy, Norn-like figures of fate.
This is a great, great show - it catches the very spirit of jazz and runs with it.
On the short list of people who have so much talent they hardly know what to do with it all, count Gregory Hines, the star, and George C. Wolfe, the author and director of the new Broadway musical "Jelly's Last Jam."
Mr. Hines's brilliance is no secret. Few, if any, tap dancers in this world can match him for elegance, speed, grace and musicianship, and, as if that weren't enough, he also happens to be a silken jazz crooner, supple in voice and plaintive in emotions. In the role of Jelly Roll Morton, Mr. Hines gets to display these gifts to the fullest, not to mention his relatively unsung prowess as an actor. Even when the band is taking a break, every note he hits rings true.
As for Mr. Wolfe, a visionary talent who is making his Broadway debut, he has given "Jelly's Last Jam" ambitions beyond the imagination of most Broadway musicals, many of the street's current hits included. The show at the Virginia Theater is not merely an impressionistic biography of the man who helped ignite the 20th-century jazz revolution, but it is also a sophisticated attempt to tell the story of the birth of jazz in general and, through that story, the edgy drama of being black in the tumultuous modern America that percolated to jazz's beat. And that's not all: "Jelly's Last Jam," a show in part about what it means to be African-American, is itself an attempt to remake the Broadway musical in a mythic, African-American image. Mr. Wolfe wants nothing less than to do for popular theater what Morton and his peers once did for pop music.
Is the effort a complete success? No. But after watching the sizzling first act of "Jelly's Last Jam," at once rollicking and excessive, roof-raising and overstuffed, you fly into intermission, high on the sensation that something new and exciting is happening, whatever the wrong turns along the way. The briefer Act II is another, deflating story, but one that should not be permitted to deface the memory of the adventurous Act I.
That adventure begins the moment Mr. Hines makes an unorthodox star entrance that is the first of the show's many breaches of Broadway tradition. Elevated into view on a platform at the edge of the darkened, empty stage, Mr. Hines arrives without fanfare. His back is to the audience, his posture crestfallen. When he finally turns to look at us, he is unsmiling, mute and shuddering. His baggy eyes are wide with the fright of someone who has just seen a ghost.
As it happens, the ghost he has seen is his own. "Jelly's Last Jam" takes place on the eve of its title character's death. It is conceived as a Judgment Day inquisition into the meaning of a life that began in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, where Ferdinand Le Menthe Morton was born into light-skinned Creole gentility, and is about to end in the "colored wing" of the Los Angeles hospital where he died, destitute and forgotten, in 1941. The elastic setting for this trial is "a lowdown club somewhere's 'tween Heaven 'n' Hell," and its chief jurist is a mysterious, raffish agent of the supernatural, Chimney Man (a majestic Keith David), who accuses Jelly of denying the black heritage that gave his music its syncopation and its pain.
While this conceit sounds heavy, the execution is often liberating. Mr. Wolfe brings on a high-voltage company of singers and dancers and a series of musical numbers in which biographical flashbacks, daring theatrical stylization, boisterous entertainment and tragic inferences all mesh in repeated crescendos. The songs have been ingeniously crafted, mostly from Morton's own compositions, by the arranger and composer, Luther Henderson, and the lyricist, Susan Birkenhead, who have tailored this instrumental music to meet the demands of the theater and of singers without sacrificing its integrity.
In one remarkable sequence that seems to be Mr. Wolfe's pointed response to the vendors' scene in "Porgy and Bess," the young Jelly, played by that exuberant dancer Savion Glover, leaves behind his strait-laced Creole upbringing to assimilate the authentic indigenous music of a diverse army of New Orleans street singers. This leads to a show-stopping tap challenge between Mr. Glover and Mr. Hines -- in which their heads, wrists and elbows are choreographed (by Mr. Hines and Ted L. Levy) as tightly as their feet -- and then into a galvanic blues belted out in a Storyland brothel by Mary Bond Davis. As Jelly moves on toward fame and fortune in 1920's Chicago, he passes through a dance hall in which a whirlwind of a chorus picks up his steps, much as his tinkling piano is echoed by the blast of horns. "That's How You Jazz," as the number is called, makes the invention of jazz a miraculous, eruptive theatrical event.
The intimate moments in Jelly's story are handled just as innovatively, with the young Jelly's banishment by his disapproving grandmother and the older Jelly's romance with a tough, independent nightclub proprietor named Anita being dramatized through wildly different blues songs. Ann Duquesnay and Tonya Pinkins bring big voices to these roles, but Ms. Pinkins's powerhouse Anita also has spicy, outspoken dialogue redolent of the strong women in Mr. Wolfe's Zora Neale Hurston adaptation, "Spunk." Her first night in bed with Jelly, a war for dominance as funny as it is erotic, aims for a new adult standard in male-female encounters in Broadway musicals. It is soon followed by a bracing Act I finale, memorably choreographed by Hope Clarke and red-hot in rage, in which Jelly's racist denial of his own blackness spirals into a nightmarish explosion of the toadying minstrel mentality he cannot leave behind.
Mr. Wolfe's harsh view of Morton, touchingly leavened by Mr. Hines's sympathetic portrayal, will not surprise those who saw his "Colored Museum," in which Josephine Baker and Michael Jackson were skewered for denying their pasts. "Jelly's Last Jam" is also consistent with that previous work's satirical assault on "A Raisin in the Sun," for it regards white racism as an old-fashioned subject for drama. Except for one brief, flat Tin Pan Alley sequence, Mr. Wolfe leaves whites offstage, choosing instead to examine schisms within black America from the inside. He is less concerned with whether Jelly can walk through doors labeled "whites only" than whether he will walk through a symbolic door, covered with tribal hieroglyphs, that leads to his African past. "Jelly's Last Jam" no more resembles old-time Broadway civil-rights musicals than it does those countless upbeat revues saluting Jelly Roll Morton's peers.
That this writer can paint his themes on a large, costly Broadway canvas without losing his own devilish voice and fabulist esthetics is doubly impressive. As director, Mr. Wolfe has also made an effortless leap, eliciting intense performances even from the ensemble and achieving a striking visual polish with the aid of such fine previous collaborators as the costume designer Toni-Leslie James and the mask and puppet designer Barbara Pollitt. The inventive sets are by Robin Wagner, whose sleek, abstract use of a black void and changing configurations of lights occasionally make a winking reference to the thematically related "Dreamgirls" that he designed for Michael Bennett.
When "Jelly's Last Jam" collapses in Act II, as it does despite Mr. Hines's heartfelt efforts, it is because Mr. Wolfe has not imaginatively recast the banal material of Jelly's decline and fall. Having nothing to add to his overall point about his hero's racial denial, he settles instead for the conventions of show-biz biography. The hit songs, money and women run out; a Freudian cliche is invoked to explain Jelly's lifelong inability to feel. And as the song-and-dance interludes dwindle, Chimney Man blows too much smoke by preachily repeating the evening's incantatory messages. The curtain finally falls on the show's one dishonest note, a Broadway happy button slapped on to a denouement that is otherwise a downer.
The second act of Mr. Wolfe's career promises to be a lot more exciting than the second act of "Jelly's Last Jam." In the meantime, anyone who cares about the future of the American musical will want to see and welcome his first.
Although most of the songs are more than 60 years old, "Jelly's Last Jam" is an original, exuberant and sometimes outrageous new American musical. And while it's rooted in the New Orleans jazz of the '20s, "Jelly" is a quintessentially '90s show. It's brash, vivacious, a little Angst-ridden and staged to within an inch of its life--all without ever being actually dangerous. If Broadway has room for an other big, splashy, tuneful crowd-pleaser, here it is.
"Jelly" marks the Broadway debut of George C. Wolfe, a director with a sensibility that's at once in-your-face and congenial--an appealing combination, particularly for a musical in which the hero's lovability quotient falls somewhere between Joey Evans and Sweeney Todd.
Wolfe also happens to be the author of the show's book, which is conventional at best and completely falls apart in the brief second act.
Nevertheless, a show starring Gregory Hines and Savion Glover will showcase the best tap dancing to be seen anywhere. And Hines gives a nimble, suave yet impassioned performance as the pioneer jazz composer, pianist and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton.
Hines generates energy from his fingers and toes; it's hard to believe anything negative could emanate from someone so dedicated to joyful high performance. But in Jelly Roll, he's met his match: a complex character with a real mean streak.
Reduced to its essentials, "Jelly" reads like a cliched biotuner: Famous guy dies and lands in purgatory, where a skeptical intermediary reviews the evidence to determine in which direction the dearly departed should be sent.
True to form, there's much more pleasure in the scenes in which the hero seems assuredly hell-bound than in the ones where he finds himself perilously close to self-awareness and rehabilitation.
A child of privilege, Morton was raised in a snobby Creole family. Classically trained, the young Jelly (Glover) finds escape playing piano in lowdown Storyville brothels and barrelhouses.
He synthesizes several black musical styles, designates himself the inventor of jazz and finds, briefly, fame and fortune in Chicago--not, however, before he's been renounced by his scandalized family. Jelly, in turn, renounces his African ancestry, becoming the worst kind of racist in a society that will never accept him as anything but black.
In what is sure to be the show's most talked-about sequence, Jelly humiliates his best friend, Jack the Bear (Stanley Wayne Mathis), whom Jelly suspects of sleeping with his lover. He presents Jack with a red bellhop's jacket to wear on the night his new club is to open outside Chicago.
Wolfe follows it, however, with a stunning coup de theatre. The entire company appears in those same jackets, and in mock blackface, to close out the first act with an explosive dance number led by Hines to King Oliver's "Dr. Jazz." It's a strategy worthy of Lenny Bruce: neutralizing an offensive stereotype by making it part of the accepted vocabulary (in this case, the dance vocabulary).
Susan Birkenhead's lyrics for this and the other tunes are bawdy and ironic, managing to avoid caricature. Propelled by Luther Henderson's muscular orchestrations, the music also seems non-stop. That's great, because the dancing in "Jelly's Last Jam" is wonderful.
Wolfe is served brilliantly by choreographer Hope Clarke, who's as inventive with the big, fervid production numbers as she is sensuous during the more intimate interludes.
The sizzling tap choreography is by Hines and Ted L. Levy. It's hard to imagine a better company to serve these ends. They know how to sing these songs, and every step is sure.
The standouts are Mathis' dignified, warmhearted Jack; Tonya Pinkins, as the sultry girlfriend, Anita; Mary Bond Davis, as Miss Mamie, the vibrant mother substitute young Jelly finds in Storyville; and Ruben Santiago Hudson as Morton's early musical influence, Buddy Bolden, the legendary cornettist who, a character says, "played notes only my black folks in heaven can hear."
Keith David, with an odd white stripe down the middle of his face, is commanding as Jelly Roll's no-nonsense guide, the Chimney Man.
Three sexy, black-clad women (Mamie Duncan Gibbs, Stephanie Pope and Allison M. Williams, known collectively as the Hunnies) form a sort of singing chorus.
Robin Wagner, who filled the stage of the Shubert Theater a few short weeks ago with his witty sets for "Crazy for You," goes to the other extreme here, in an abstract mode reminiscent of his designs for "Dreamgirls."
He lets a few lines of neon or a curtain of beads suggest the scene, in concert with Jules Fisher's splayed and smoky shafts of light. The major exception is an early street scene dominated by a huge orange sun and lit with a fiery Southern Comfort glow.
There's also great range in Toni Leslie James' costumes. Some are tacky (those Hunnies) but the rest run the gamut from earthy in one scene to elegant in the next.
That leaves the show's chief, but crucial, failing.
Wolfe's book is at times aimless and repetitive. Worse, it never builds, content instead to unfold from scene to scene. There's virtually no emotional payoff, despite the nasty truths that the Chimney Man forces Jelly to confront.
Worse yet, it collapses in the second act, in which the star is given too little to do. The result, despite the best efforts of Hines and company, probably runs counter to Wolfe's intention.
Polished to a dazzling finish, "Jelly's Last Jam" is almost sinfully pleasurable, without making any demands whatsoever on the heart.