Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe was a controversial figure in his time recognized as much for his arrogance as he was for his talents as a jazz pianist and composer. Jelly Roll Morton, as he was known professionally, boasted that he invented jazz, a claim rejected by historians and fellow musicians. There’s no doubt, however, that he contributed mightily to jazz’s growth and made significant contributions to the genre’s songbook. Jelly’s Last Jam, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, brings to the stage a talented group of performers to celebrate his life and legacy.
Mark G. Meadows with the cast
Signature Theatre is transformed into the Jungle Inn nightclub, the Washington, D.C. bar where Morton worked and managed in 1935. (The actual address for the bar was 1211 U Street, NW, adjacent to what is now another D.C. landmark, Ben’s Chili Bowl.) An intimate atmosphere is created, small lamps with fringed shades adorn a dozen or so round tables that ring the stage providing seating for some audience members. (We almost expect to see waiters running around serving drinks.) Decorative chandeliers evoke the feeling of a dance hall. Side runways link the back stage to two circular platforms in front where several of the production’s stunning dance numbers are performed.
When the musical opens, Morton is dead and, aided by the enigmatic “Chimney Man” (Cleavant Derricks), is looking back on his life, warts and all. While Morton possessed incredible talents, he was also misogynistic and racist, insulting and often cruel to those around him. Born into a wealthy mixed-race Creole family in New Orleans, Morton was drawn to the music being played in the streets of his native city, mostly by poor blacks. His conflicts about his ancestry – he rejected his African American heritage, claiming to be of French descent – damaged both his personal and professional relationships. He left his mark on jazz, yet we’re left to wonder how much greater would his influence have been if he had not alienated so many along the way.
Mark G. Meadows
Young Jelly, played by Elijah Mayo, is tossed out from his home by his strict grandmother (Iyona Blake), who disapproved of his musical aspirations and particularly disliked the seedy bars he was playing in. With few options left, Morton becomes a traveling musician, but his family’s slight will continue to haunt him. As the adult Morton, jazz pianist Mark G. Meadows brings the many facets of this complicated entertainer to life. While Meadows’ jazz credentials are stellar, including popular albums, concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and many other venues, and accolades for his performances from the press, this musical marks his acting debut. Hopefully, this won’t be the last role he tackles.
Guy Lockhard and Mark G. Meadows
Having an actor who can play the piano and sing results in a fuller portrayal of Morton. But Meadows displays his acting skills during some of the most challenging scenes, including one which involves a confrontation with perhaps Morton’s best friend, “Jack the Bear,” played by Guy Lockhard, another standout performer. What transpires is so searing there were audible gasps in the audience and then silence.
Mark G Meadows and Felicia Boswell
Jelly finds the love of his life, Anita (Felicia Boswell), when he vies for a job in her club. While she’s impressed with his talents, she’s put off by his hubris and makes him work for her approval. Morton wins the job as well as her heart, but he sabotages the relationship before it can get started. Meadows and Boswell have a natural chemistry and their duets are thrilling to watch. Boswell, whose Broadway credits include playing Josephine Baker in Shuffle Along, infuses her strong voice with so much emotion that we feel her joy when she falls in love with Jelly and her heart-wrenching pain when he verbally abuses her.
Despite the dark moments from Jelly’s life, the musical is uplifting entertainment. The leads are backed up with an exceptional cast of singers and dancers. For fans of tap dancing, don’t miss it! Because these dance moments take place on those circular platforms, the audience can witness up close the energy and technique displayed by each dancer. Incredible choreography by Jared Grimes.
Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan
Dede M. Ayite’s costume design reflects the time period with the glittery flapper dresses worn by the female trio of Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, and Eben K. Logan, and the dapper suits sported by Meadows and the other male actors. Derricks’ Chimney Man costume presents as both authoritative and foreboding, consistent with his role in raking over Jelly’s many transgressions that may lead to a less than desirable life after death.
Director Matthew Gardiner has once again staged a Broadway-worthy show that is hugely enjoyable. And because of Jelly Roll Morton’s connection to the area, one that should interest local audiences.
Photos by Christopher Mueller
Top: Mark G. Meadows, center, with the cast
Jelly’s Last Jam
4200 Campbell Avenue