Arts

Review: Pasadena Playhouse’s ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Has Tap, Tragedy, and Triumph

John Clarence Stewart (center) and cast in Pasadena Playhouse's production of "Jelly's Last Jam" in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

It took only thirty-three years for Jelly’s Last Jam to return to Southern California after world-premiering at the Mark Taper Forum, but it’s finally here at the Pasadena Playhouse in what is a feverishly entertaining and profound musical, directed adroitly by Kent Gash. Featuring extraordinary tap dancing and a poignant commentary on identity, belonging, and internalized oppression, the early 20th century story of Jelly Roll Morton is told with sensational style by an all-Black cast who recount how the self-professed “inventor of jazz” Morton, a Louisiana-born Creole, relives his unsettled upbringing and the events comprising his unresolved life.

Cress Williams in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

The seldomly produced work by George C. Wolfe — with music by Morton, Luther Henderson, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead — begins when Morton is awakened on the gurney where he lies dead in the Black section of Los Angeles County General Hospital. Nudging him from his deep sleep is Chimney Man, a ghost of voodoo inspiration who is well-aware that the musician has repudiated the “Black soil from which this rhythm was born” and thus “welcomes Jelly to the other side, to tell a tale and save [his] soul.” Suffice it to say, Jelly must come to terms with the pain that has plagued his past, present, and potentially future. As the audience meets young Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (Jelly’s birthname), his Gran Mimi, musical partner Jack the Bear, girlfriend Anita, and the trio of Hunnies who put musical exclamation marks on the end of his biographical chapters, it becomes clear that Jelly’s unprocessed hurt has been malignantly redirected in the form of boundless ego, arrogance, and unconscionably hurtful actions.

(L-R) Doran Butler and Karole Foreman in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

An all-encompassing reflective journey is compellingly told over two-and-a-half-hours in large part due to the simple but versatile scenic design by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., whose use of a walkway, moveable stairwell, projections, and a light-up “Jelly” marquee aptly house each of the scenes. Rui Rita’s lighting evokes a sense of intimacy but also illuminates Jelly’s transgressions in vivid detail as he is left to atone for denying a part of himself. The sound design by Danny Erdberg and Ursula Kwong Brown ensure that the various instances of mellifluous melody, syncopation, vibrato, and beats are heard bountifully.

In addition, the production wouldn’t have nearly the verve as it does without musical director Darryl Archibald who, according to Artistic Director Danny Feldman, helped restore the original music. Archibald is joined by associate music director/pianist Abdul Hamid Royal and nine of their fellow band members upstage whose bluesy mixture of horns and percussion equal not only a stirring urgency, but an unforgettable night on the town. Rivaling the music is the dancing, of course, and Dell Howlett deserves significant acclaim for his electrifying tap numbers that whip the crowd into a frenzy.

John Clarence Stewart (center) and cast in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Thoroughly painting the indisputably jazzy and sometimes controversial portrait of Jelly Roll Morton is John Clarence Stewart. Dressed in a modish three-piece white suit with gold tie (costume designer is the keen-eyed Samantha C. Jones), Stewart spryly conveys Morton’s virtuous abilities on the piano, dance floor, and through song. Although as likable as Morton may have been in these respects, he was a womanizer, overinflated his contributions, and knew only one way how to treat those closest to him: terribly. Stewart similarly gets across Morton’s agony, turned inwardly and outwardly toward his racial peers who, if you asked Jelly himself, were “savages with sticks” before he came along. As encouraging as Jelly’s Last Jam can be, it’s also intended to make one feel uncomfortable, underscoring how the withdrawn Creole saw other African Americans as beneath him, which particularly leaves an impression in the Act I finale, “Dr. Jazz.”

Doran Butler is Young Jelly through whom we learn about Morton’s genteel, French opera-attuned credo, “The Creole Way,” which must be obeyed and is explicitly disapproving of Black music. Butler is tremendous at emoting how wounded Young Jelly was, but also how unstoppable he could be as a hoofer. By tapping on the bottom of an aluminum bucket and soloing with every fiber of his being by shuffling on the ball of his feet and digging his heels at a rapid-fire pace — not to mention doing the splits at one point — Butler’s display of skill is worth a ticket alone.

Jasmine Amy Rogers (with John Clarence Stewart at the piano) in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Cress Williams of the The CW’s Black Lightning is the uncompromising Chimney Man, a “concierge” who keeps Morton true to an objective version of his past, not the sugarcoated one he wishes to retrace. Without Williams’s venerable presence and booming voice, the plot would lose its stakes and meaning very quickly. And, as formidable as the Chimney Man is, he can also be hilarious — a credit to Williams’s confident delivery — with rejoinders that, for example, threaten a place worse than hell, like a certain city in the Midwest.

Another challenger to Jelly’s egocentrism is Anita, a lounge singer and club owner whose headstrong nature attracts the helpless “Mr. Piano Man.” Jasmine Amy Rogers gives Anita an undeniable and unquestionable worth that draws attention and admiration, specifically with her introduction in “Play the Music for Me” and then in Act II’s “The Last Chance Blues.” Rogers’s dulcet vibrato, and tone reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald, is a pleasure to listen to just as much as her ownership of the sassy Anita is a treat to watch.

The company of Jelly’s Last Jam at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Anita doesn’t just become enamored with Jelly; she also falls in love with Jack the Bear, Morton’s traveling musical right-hand man. Wilkie Ferguson III gives perhaps his best-ever performance as Jack with a consummate triple-threat exhibition of scorching singing, infectious liveliness, and acting chops that elicit an overwhelming sympathy from attendees for his character who is deplorably spoken to by Stewart’s “The Roll.”

Karole Foreman, a member of the original Jelly’s Last Jam cast, exemplifies how some performers really do get better with age. Her Gran Mimi has no qualms about ominously admonishing and withholding affection from Morton while stalking him in a suitably black gossamer gown signifying the grief that her grandson must feel. However, what makes it difficult to perceive of Mimi as completely adversarial is the winsome clarity with which Foreman sings “Get Away Boy.”

The company of Jelly’s Last Jam at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Essentially narrating Jelly’s exploits and misdeeds with their harmonies are the three Hunnies — depicted by Cyd-Charisse Glover-Hill (also the dance captain), Janaya Mahealani Jones, and Naomi C. Walley — whose conviction on stage is exuded through sensuality and a resoluteness about Jelly’s injudiciousness, particularly in relationships. Glover-Hill, Jones, and Walley are spectacular in imparting this, notably during the lyrical progression of “Lovin’ Is a Lowdown Blues.”

Making brief but intensely impassioned splashes are Summer Nicole Greer as the belting powerhouse Miss Mamie, Grasan Kingsberry as the legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden who teaches Young Jelly a thing or two about jazz, and Joe Aaron Reid as Foot-In-Yo-Ass Sam who has the perfect rebuttal to Stewart’s Jelly. The super-talented Eric B. Anthony, Chante Carmel, Amber Liekhus, Davon Rashawn, and Hannah Yosef make up the rest of the ensemble in a wild ride of a production that also surprises with some puppeteering.

(L-R in foreground) Janaya Mahealani Jones, Naomi C. Walley, and Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill in Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Creole heritage or not, for most of his life Jelly Roll Morton refused to acknowledge a great number of his roots and precise place in music history. Passing away as he did next to Black folk whom he avowed were so dissimilar from him served as the ultimate irony. And, while it’s largely unknown if the real Morton humbly reexamined the warped view of himself brought on by authoritarian ancestors who were intent on pushing the partial delusion of his origin, Morton does see a divergent outcome in Jelly’s Last Jam. Pasadena Playhouse’s newest production ignites the zeal in observers with a heart-stopping presentation of jazz and tap interwoven with a leader of the New Orleans-originated genre who is spirtually weighed down by his inner demons. It’s a ragtime rollercoaster that rollicks and rends the heart.

Jelly’s Last Jam runs through Sunday, June 23rd. For more information on the Pasadena Playhouse production, and to purchase tickets, visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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