Ted Louis Levy collaborated with the extraordinary Gregory Hines to choreograph the original Broadway production of Jelly's Last Jam. Twenty-five years later, the master tap dancer assumes the lead in director Jackie Alexander's production at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. The early jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton was a Creole born in the Faubourg Marigny before the turn of the 20th century and later claimed to have invented jazz.
The musical is at once an entertaining romp, biography of a musical genius and exploration of black history at a tumultuous time.
Jelly's Last Jam opened on Broadway in 1991 and was the first musical written and directed by an African-American that explored the contradictory experiences black performers faced in the entertainment industry. Although Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (also seen as La Menthe), who came to be known as Jelly Roll Morton, was raised in a cultured, Creole home, speaking French and studying classical piano, he was disowned by his family after he was found playing bawdy music in a brothel.
The show's brilliant script was written by George C. Wolfe, who also wrote Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, and Luther Henderson adapted Morton's music. The poetic language and rousing music reveal Morton's cultural ambivalence as well as his talents. At Le Petit, Tom Hook mimics Morton's swinging style on the keyboard while directing a seven-piece band.
The story opens at the end of Morton's life, when he must deal with mistakes he has made, particularly casting aside his good friend Jack (Robert Diago DoQui) and lover Anita. Near death, he finds himself in a seedy club "somewhere between heaven and hell" with the mystical Chimney Man (Damien Moses), "concierge to your soul."
"Yes, he of diamond tooth 'n' flashy threads; Yes, he who drinks from the vine of syncopation, but denies the black soil from which this rhythm was born," Chimney Man says.
L.G. Williams II plays the rebellious, young Morton, defying his Gran Mimi (Mikhala Iversen) and embarrassing the family by sneaking off to dance halls. The Hunnies — the fabulous dancers Traci Tolmaire, who choreographed the work, Jarrell Hamilton and Shangobunmi Mcalpine — wildly jitterbug, which was all the rage in Harlem in the early 20th century.
The narrative traces the evolution of jazz as Morton first learns about the blues from Buddy Bolden (Kebron Woodfin). Singing in Bolden's club, Miss Mami (Tomeka L. Williams) belts out a stirring rendition of "Mississippi Water," reminding Morton, "They don't want you downtown, because just like yo' ass, your face is brown."
A highlight of the show is Morton's love interest, the "full-lipped and sweet-lipped" Anita, performed by Idella Johnson, whose deep, sultry voice brings down the house in "Play the Music for Me."
Jelly's Last Jam won several awards on Broadway, but its premise is undoubtedly better understood here in New Orleans. As Chimney Man says: "In telling the story of Jelly, ya gotta have grit to go with the gravy. Ya gotta have pain to go with the song."