And it came to pass that jazz was born at Signature Theatre when Jelly’s Last Jam kicked off the 2016/2017 season in the sweltering August heat! Step right into ‘The Jungle Inn’ where you’re jammin’ with Jelly tonight! There’s no doubt about this masterful musical— with book by George C. Wolfe, Music by Jelly Roll Morton, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and Musical Adaptation & Additional Music composed by Luther Henderson— as it lays down the birth of jazz exactly like Jelly Roll Morton remembers it! Directed by Matthew Gardner with Musical Direction by Darius Smith, this sizzling stage stunner will bring you to your feet in thunderous applause for all the heart, rhythm, blues, and— most importantly— the very pulse and soul of jazz that it brings forth for the evening.
Swanky can’t begin to describe the utter atmospheric essence of The Jungle Inn, which has bloomed inside the Max Theatre as the fine handiwork of Scenic Designer Daniel Conway. Ensuring that the audience is submerged, immersed, and fully steeped in the ambiance of this wild 1920’s night club, Conway doesn’t bring the audience into the club but rather lets the club sprout up within the audience. In a skewed three-quarters thrust approach to the stage, wherein a curled and meandering apron works its way out into the center of the house, the construct of this entertainment arena feels like a perfectly synchronized step out of time. Right down to the cabaret-style tables for VIP patrons, which include crystal draped lampshades whose lights dim and brighten with the scenes, there isn’t a detail out of place in Conway’s design work that could keep this show from looking and feeling anything but spectacular.
Enhancing the experience, Lighting Designer Grant Wilcoxen brings levels of haze, shade, and lowlight into play that augment the atmosphere taking it from natural moments inside this wild place of partying to the more subdued moments of memory, the strikingly harrowing moments of revolting reality, and the subtly eerie moments of the otherworldly. Wilcoxen understands balance above all, particularly when dimming and brightening not only the physical lights themselves but the mood contained within the atmosphere created by these illuminating shifts. With the decadent chandeliers dripping from high above the house, Wilcoxen’s work is at its most superb whenever a shift involves a transition from full darkness to light or vice versa.
Cementing the notion of the roaring 1920’s in place, Costume Designer Dede M. Ayite outfits the cast in the finest threads the pre-depression era decade can afford. Shimmer and shine cling to the dresses of the Hunnies while the more exotic layers of lace fit out the flapper dresses on the remaining female ensemble characters. Sharp suits with dapper duds to match leave the gents of the show looking mighty fine. Ayite’s crown jewel isn’t any suit or coat seen on the title character or even a smashing dress on his love interest, but rather the full outfit used on Chimney Man. Crafting an elegant creole gentleman who bears a subtle similarity to recently pop culturalized visions of Papa Legba, Ayite’s selection for this character adds a full layer of mysterious intrigue to the already enigmatic sweeper of souls.
Musical Director Darius Smith has the orchestra— which can be seen live on the second tier of the elegantly elaborate stage— well balanced, pitch perfect, and rumbling through the jazzy tempos of each and every song. Though the majority of the show’s numbers are hypnotically upbeat, Smith delivers distinctive shifts in rhythm and tempo when the songs slow down and take on a more serious emotional tone. The energy with which Smith guides the live six-person pit (featuring the exceptionally talented Ed Walters, Jonathon Neal, Christopher Steele, Gerry Kunkel, Bill Hones, and Joe McCarthy) is astonishing, giving each toe-tapping song its own lively feeling that invites the audience to be a part of that recollection of Jelly’s life.
Jaws will drop when it comes to the intensity of Choreographer Jared Grimes’ dance routines in this show. Led by Dance Captain DeWitt Fleming Jr., the effervescently enthusiastic routines are the epitome of jazz, swing, and a feel-good time when it comes to dancing. Stunning does not begin to describe the three male solo tap performers— Fleming, as well as Joseph Monroe Webb and Christopher Broughton— who all but explode with tap-dancing footwork so fancy, so fresh, and so fleet-footedly fly that its mind blowing. Watching Fleming, Webb, and Broughton during “That’s How You Jazz” and later in an instrumental segment that features each of them in a phenomenally sensational tap solo, showcases an unabashedly raw showcase of tap-dancer talent that is incomparable to anything else happening in the show.
At first glance the show might be relegated to the ever-popular ‘jukebox style’ musical category, but Director Matthew Gardiner pulls the storyline through each moment of the evening as it unfolds. Focusing on the intimate exchanges not only between characters in the relationships that they craft but on the way the audience perceives these transactions explores Gardiner’s creative genius in addition to shedding light on the reality of the show. “Dr. Jazz” becomes a horrifically revolting number to watch, so blatantly staged in flavors of wrong that it’s almost too sour to discuss, and yet at the same time Gardiner’s masterful approach to this number is disgustingly beautiful in the same way that glorious blaze catches the eye and transfixes the watcher. His tasteful approach to the tawdry nature of “Lovin’ is a Lowdown Blues” keeps the sensuality of the number in play without tarnishing the experience for the audience. A remarkable visionary, Gardiner has the spirit of jazz and all it entails well in hand when directing this musical.
Filled with talent, the ensemble is bursting with rowdy spirit when it comes to the big group numbers like “The Chicago Stomp”, “Too Late, Daddy”, and the iconic “That’s How You Jazz.” The rousing voices of Eben K. Logan, Nova Y. Payton, and Kara-Tameika Watkins, who comprise the trio The Hunnies, add pips of gusto to numbers like “In My Day” and “Jelly’s Jam.” Payton, who doubles as Miss Mamie, gets to showcase her particular brand of belting when it comes to “Michigan Water” and although her story is as long as her song, she makes a memorable impression on the crowd just the same.
Searing hot with a rage that could melt Pluto, Gran Mimi (Iyona Blake) is a frightful force that shakes the house down when she lays into “The Banishment.” With generations of wounded pride and scorned tradition reverberating through her voice, Blake takes the number to haunting heights, with a fury so strong that it singes the soul when sung. Blending the operatic and aristocratic sound of ‘proper Creole’ against the deep and moving ‘soul’ which her character refuses to acknowledge, Blake sends chills up the spine with this solo.
Equally as moving and twice as striking, though for very different reasons, sweet Anita (Felicia Boswell) lands blow after blow of sassy temperament that simply will not quit. Boswell’s voice crackles through the air with soul, rhythm, and blues when she starts in on “Play the Music for Me.” With a smoky, breathy sound that wafts from her lips to the audiences’ ears, Boswell keeps every person in the theatre— be it on stage with her or in the house watching her— in rapt attention every step of the way. Loaded with a sassy personality that flings confidence with gusto, she puts Jelly in his place more than a time or two, but maintains a surprisingly spry versatility to the character on the whole. Boswell is tender with both Jelly and Jack the Bear (Guy Lockard, who is congenial and chummy in the role.) Finding her eleven o’clock footing with “The Last Chance Blues”, a duet shared with Jelly, Boswell blows the audience away with her earnest sincerity in this moment.
Majestically intoxicating, the Chimney Man (Cleavant Derricks) will seduce your soul right out of you if you’re not careful. With a voice that could awaken the underworld for all its deep robust tones, Derricks glides through the moments his character truly spends in song. A great deal of his singing is spent clicking through patter, a task at which he excels. Frightening and yet fantastical, the attitude and overall verve with which Derricks presents this agent of the underworld is a spine-tingling delight. Cheeky when appropriate, chilling when necessary, Derricks masterfully navigates his way through the all of Jelly’s memories— the good, the bad, and the ugly— including the introduction of Young Jelly (Elijah Mayo, whom is praiseworthy for his brief moments on stage) and every other character that crosses Morton’s path.
As for the inventor of jazz, Mr. Jelly Roll Morton (Mark G. Meadows) there is no mistake that the night is going to be the very last jam he ever makes. Meadows has a remarkably expedient hand when it comes to hammering away on the keys of both the upright and the baby grand, which rises impressively from the stage floor compliments of Conway’s scenic design. There is an enthusiasm that defies description when it comes to the way Meadows plays the piano, something intrinsically guided by the spirit of jazz that has no name other than ‘Jelly Roll Morton.’ With a strong singing voice to carry tunes through numbers like “In My Day”, “The Whole World’s Waitin’ to Sing Your Song”, and Somethin’ More”, Meadows is triumphant in his efforts to recreate the lively persona that is Jelly Roll Morton. Refusing to show weakness of any variety until the last moment of absolution, Meadows delivers a nearly unredeemable character, which makes the hot switch toward the show’s conclusion that much more impressive.
You’ll be hooked and dragged in by the rag, the swing, and most importantly, the jazz. Jelly’s Last Jam might be the last show you ever hear with such honest heart and soul. There is definitely no way you’ll want to miss this musical extravaganza.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Jelly’s Last Jam plays through September 11, 2016 in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre— 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington, VA. For tickets call the box office at (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.