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Jelly’s Last Jam (New York City Center Encores!)

A Greek tragedy in the guise of an entertaining musical is revived by the venerable Encores!.

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Nicholas Christopher as Jelly Roll Morton in a scene from the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

Does the New York City Center Encores! new production of Jelly’s Last Jam hold up against the original Broadway production (1992-1993) which starred Gregory Hines (Tony Award), Savion Glover, Keith David and Tonya Pinkins (Tony Award)?

Yes, it does and makes a good case for Jam’s enjoying a strong future.  This production, directed with verve and precision by Robert O’Hara, is both a fine musical and a fine drama, a diamond in the crown that is the Encores! thirty-year history.

Nicholas Christopher and Joaquina Kalukango in a scene from the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in New Orleans in 1890), was a seminal figure in the colorful history of America’s only home-grown art form, Jazz.  He claimed to be the sole originator of the genre—to much derision—and lived both a charmed and damned life as a light-skinned Creole who too often had a haughty opinion of dark-skinned people, including friends.  All this is shockingly on display in this musical.

Although Jelly’s Last Jam—book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead—fictionalizes and exaggerates, it pretty much adheres to the basic biography of this music legend, starting with the Young Jelly (Alaman Diadhiou, terrific) becoming fixated on the down and dirty music of the whorehouse culture after years of strict classical music education, shocking his austere family (“The Creole Way”).

Allison M. Williams, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, Billy Porter and Mamie Duncan-Gibbs in a scene from the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Jelly (Nicholas Christopher, a charismatic actor/singer/dancer, most recently in Sweeney Todd) has a brilliant, optimistic duet with his younger self (“The Whole World’s Waitin’ to Sing Your Song”) which, late in the show, flips into a desperate clinging to his youthful aspirations, “Jelly in Isolation,” performed by both selves at Jelly’s lowest point when he is abandoned by his friends and jazz stalwarts who deride his claims of being the progenitor of Jazz.

For discomforting his socially important Creole family, he is banished by his grandmother, Gran Mimi, in a searing number sung by Leslie Uggams whose vocal and dramatic prowess appears undimmed (“The Banishment”).

Leslie Uggams in a scene from the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Wolfe’s book follows the ebulliently self-entitled Jelly from the house of juicy Miss Mamie, “the Blues Queen of Rampart Street” (Tiffany Mann, beautifully boisterous), through his doomed partnership with Jack the Bear (John Clay III, making a three-dimensional, suffering human being out of an under-written role) to the love of his life, Anita (a sublime Joaquina Kalukango) with whom he formed a romantic and business partnership starting in Chicago and continuing through his tough years in New York City.  He drove these people away with his scornful superiority.

The entire show is narrated by the Chimney Man (Billy Porter, clearly delighting in this role), opening the show portentously, dressed in flowing black.  He introduces the framing device of the show: Jelly looking back on his life as he attempts to get into Heaven, represented by the most conspicuous piece of Clint Ramos’ set, a portal between past and present and between earth and heaven.

Okieriete Onaodowan and Tiffany Mann in a scene from the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Does he get into Heaven after a life of alcoholism, misogyny, uninhibited pride and gross treatment of those who helped him along the way? See the show and find out.

Wolfe’s book, the wonderful score, O’Hara’s direction and the ebullient choreography of Edgar Godineaux and Dormeshia carry the show with energy and wit, helped by the glittery costumes of Dede Ayite lit lustrously by Adam Honoré.

Paul Niebanck, Nicholas Christopher and James Patterson in a scene from the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Jelly’s Last Jam is a true Greek Tragedy with its dancing chorus, the Hunnies (Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren and Allison M. Williams, all fantastic singer/dancers, and remarkably members of the 1992 original cast) and a hero whose hubris brings him down.  That it includes sensational performances and is also entertaining is an added bonus.

Jelly’s Last Jam (through March 3, 2024)

New York City Center Encores!

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

About Joel Benjamin (562 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

2 Comments on Jelly’s Last Jam (New York City Center Encores!)

  1. Rosemarie DiMatteo // March 5, 2024 at 6:03 pm // Reply

    I had the profound pleasure of attending this stunning show twice. Most people don’t even know that this remarkable troup of performers had a total of ten days to rehearse the show before it opened February 21 for a two week run. Even fewer know that Billy Porter, “The Chimney Man,” performed the final three shows following the unexpected passing of his mother. He nevertheless dazzled us with performances that were absolute fire. Also, this show was the debut performance of Alaman Diadhiou, “Young Jelly,” and his musical number stopped the show for several minutes each night to thunderous applause. The entire cast, crew, and jazz orchestra presented a calibre of artistic magic that only happens once in a great while. I’m still high from the experience!

  2. I enjoyed it very much with it’s very talented performers. It was a lot of fun as well with a side of substance that upstaged the glamor and glitter.

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