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Review: Jelly’s Last Jam Gets a Dazzling Revival at Pasadena Playhouse

The musical, with book by George C. Wolfe, runs through June 23.

John Clarence Stewart (center) leads the cast of Jelly’s Last Jam at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch)

The rarely revived Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical biography of jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton, arrives at the Pasadena Playhouse as part of its classic musical series in a production that showcases Morton’s scintillating rhythms and Dell Howlett’s spirited choreography.

The gifted but arrogant Jelly (John Clarence Stewart) stands in purgatory before the cryptic Chimney Man (Cress Williams), sentenced to explain his life before he can climb the steps to heaven. He is judged for his racism (as a creole, Jelly considers himself superior to his African-American contemporaries) and boasts that he “invented” jazz. In retelling his life, warts and all, Jelly must face his shortcomings and beg forgiveness from those he’s wronged.

George C. Wolfe’s book can be superficial at times and feels like another journey to the Heaviside Layer minus the Cats ears. The libretto, which does confront colorism head-on, bravely centers its story on an antihero with massive talent but a bitter personality.

Because the protagonist is caustic, the role requires someone compelling — not so that the audience would grow to love him, but so they are at least invested in his conflict. While Stewart is a sufficient singer and excellent hoofer, he’s missing that magnetism. Williams is commanding and eerie as the gatekeeper to the afterworld. Jasmine Amy Rogers has a tremendous voice and portrays strength as the woman who loves Jelly but won’t take his guff. Wilkie Ferguson III is tender as Jelly’s exploited best friend. Doran Butler, as younger Jelly, is a fantastic tap dancer, and he’s given plenty of opportunities to set the floor on fire.

The cast of Jelly’s Last Jam at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch)

The ensemble perform Howlett’s crafty tap and ragtime moves with precision, but their singing as a group is not cohesive. Whether it was a sound issue or the dancers’ singing abilities, it was often hard to hear the lyrics in group numbers.

Kent Gash’s direction suffered from a few odd beats and awkward blackouts that threw off the tempo. He also needed the cast to pick up the pace in Act 1, which felt sluggish in places.

The score combines Morton melodies, with enhancements by musical adapter Luther Henderson and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, to capture the flavor of the rag and jazz ages. The music is boosted by music director Darryl Archibald and his sizzling orchestra.

The sets by Edward E. Haynes Jr. juxtapose the murkiness of staircases from gothic houses to the otherworld and the bright neon of marquees. Samantha C. Jones decks out the cast in the loose-fitting suits and silk lingerie of the early 20th century.

Jelly’s Last Jam pulls audiences into the wild, unpredictable music and dance world of Jelly Roll Morton. The historical retelling of jazz’s inception, along with a distinct movement style, allows Jelly’s Last Jam to round off the Pasadena Playhouse’s season with flair.

 

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Jelly’s Last Jam

Closed: June 23, 2024