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‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Review: A Musical Paradise, Even in Purgatory

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That painful history can be alchemized into thrilling entertainment is both the central idea and the takeaway experience of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the jaw-dropping Encores! revival that opened on Wednesday at City Center. Especially in its first act, as it tells the intertwined stories of Jelly Roll Morton and the early years of jazz, it offers up wonder after wonder, in songs and dances so neatly conceived and ferociously performed that in the process of blowing the roof off the building they also make your hair stand on end.

It might not be immediately apparent from its strange framework that the musical could produce such an effect. The book, by George C. Wolfe, who also directed the 1992 Broadway original, introduces us to Morton (Nicholas Christopher) at the moment of his death. That’s when he is greeted, in a kind of nightclub limbo, by Chimney Man — so called because this forbidding psychopomp, played by the fascinatingly strict Billy Porter, sweeps souls to their destination. Accompanied by a trio of louche, bespangled “Hunnies,” he first puts Morton through a recap of his life, with an emphasis on his lies, betrayals and musicological self-aggrandizement.

How many of those lies and betrayals really happened is unclear; most of the musical’s specific situations and supporting characters seem to be inventions or conflations. But the self-aggrandizement is all too real. Morton, not content to be merely a great pianist and composer in the early years of jazz, repeatedly claimed to have “invented” the genre. It is for this sin — a sin against history but also against Blackness — that the show seeks to prosecute him.

If only real trials were as entertaining. Morton’s privileged but stifling youth in a wealthy, light-skinned New Orleans family is sketched in a series of numbers that efficiently establish the expectations of the Creole class and his rebellions against it. Like most rebellions, his involve exposure to different kinds of people; when the boy (beautifully played by Alaman Diadhiou) sneaks into the dives and brothels on the Blacker side of town, the sounds of tinkers, ragpickers, beignet men and voodoo vendors, layered and compressed and powerfully polyrhythmic, open his ears to a new kind of music.

As presented here, that music is sensationally catchy. (Though mostly Morton’s, it also includes material written by Luther Henderson for the 1992 production.) Somewhat miraculously considering its knottiness, it has been set with lyrics, by Susan Birkenhead, that spark and sparkle. In numbers like “The Whole World’s Waitin’ to Sing Your Song,” she weaves scat and slang and classic Broadway wordsmithery (“Slide that sound/Roll that rhythm/Syncopate the street-beat with ’em”) into a multipurpose dramatic net.

But even when left basically alone, the old songs are made to work extra hard. Morton’s “Michigan Water” (which tastes “like sherry wine” compared to Mississippi’s “turpentine”) is not just a rip-roarer for Tiffany Mann as Miss Mamie, a local blues singer, and Okieriete Onaodowan as Buddy Bolden, a (real) pioneer of jazz cornet, but also a road sign pointing young Jelly north.

Over and over, the songs do that kind of triple duty, providing entertainment, plot and context. The Encores! production, directed with breakneck intensity by Robert O’Hara, likewise works on all levels at once, with entertainment being the most consistent. For one thing, it is marvelously and luxuriously cast: Joaquina Kalukango plays Morton’s love interest, Anita, in just two scenes (but one of them lets her make “Play the Music for Me” a whole novel in song), and Leslie Uggams, in fierce and full voice, plays Morton’s grandmother in just one. Perhaps that’s wise; Uggams snarling, “If you spit in the water, there’s no going back to the well” leaves your head spinning.

And though the endlessly inventive, often off-center tap choreography (by Dormeshia) tends to overwhelm the regular kind (by Edgar Godineaux), they both make their points along with the music. In one number, “That’s How You Jazz,” the ensemble builds a song before your eyes and ears: first imitating tubas for some “lowdown foundation,” then banjos for some “sweet-ass syncopation,” then horns for “some bluesy variations” — all while performing steps that seem to turn their bodies into bobbing notes on a staff.

It is, in some ways, an overmuchness of riches — this even before mentioning the endearing John Clay III as Morton’s buddy Jack the Bear, or the fact that the Hunnies (Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren and Allison M. Williams) are reprising their roles from the original production, looking just as great today, in Dede Ayite’s costumes, as they did 32 years ago.

But if the upswing of the story’s arc lifts all its talents, the downswing sometimes confounds them. Especially in the second act, as Morton, falling behind the tastes of the times, doubles down on his renunciation of Blackness — there are “no Black notes” in his songs, he insists — the story grows repetitive in its overbearing frame. Lacking any possible forward motion except metaphysically, it can offer only a kaleidoscopic crisis of memories and psychobabble. Were it not for Porter’s flat-out refusal to let your attention stray, it would.

Or it would if not for the star-making turn at the center of the action. (I have buried both the lead and the lede.) Christopher is stunning as Morton, with the huge, rich voice and expressive density we usually associate with female divas. He has the acting bandwidth to keep both the immediate moment and the larger situation of the character in play, never flagging in an exhaustingly emotional role. And, as would not have been apparent when he recently played Sweeney Todd in the interregnum between Josh Groban and Aaron Tveit, he also dances well.

Aside from gala productions like “A Chorus Line,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” is in fact the biggest dance musical I’ve seen at City Center. Encores! has evidently put a lot of resources into it. Though the sets (by Clint Ramos) are minimal, they’re handsome, and the lighting, by Adam Honoré, is luscious. Even the wigs (by J. Jared Janas) are exceptional. The 15-person band sounds fantastic playing the original arrangements and orchestrations, slightly tweaked for today by the music director, Jason Michael Webb. OK, the amplification isn’t yet ideally balanced, but that’s always an issue at an Encores! first performance.

Whether all that goodness recommends a Broadway transfer, as has been rumored, is not for me to say. The book has unsolvable problems, but then so do most musicals, until they are solved — or bulldozed. Even then, few give you a first act like this one, or a subject — the creation of American music in the furious cauldron of race — as hot. I mean hot as entertainment, of course, but also, even hotter, as history.

Jelly’s Last Jam
Through March 3 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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