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Jelly's Last Jam

a Musical Revue
CATEGORY : MUSICAL
by George C. Wolfe, Jelly Roll Morton, and Susan Birkenhead

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1587

SHOWING : March 15, 2006 - April 09, 2006

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

The works of Jelly Roll Morton are highlighted in this razzmatazz revue that puts them in the context of his life and times.


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REVIEWS

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Revues in Review
by Dedalus
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
5.0
Last year, Alliance Theatre produced the Louis Jordan revue “Five Guys Named Moe.” It was an exciting production, but I took the premise of the show to task, saying the libretto undercut the songs and worked against them. “Jelly’s Last Jam” is a perfect counterpoint – this time, the libretto not only provides a framework for the subject (the music of Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton), but, in very many ways, enhances it.

I first encountered the music of Jelly Roll Morton in the soundtrack of the movie “Pretty Baby,” in which he actually appeared as a character. The choices used there, though, were of an earlier, pre-jazz (ragtime) period of his life, and seemed to me mere Scott Joplin rip-offs. However, I liked them enough to eagerly anticipate this show.

“Jelly’s Last Jam” uses pieces from his entire life. And, by the ingenious devise of making him and his younger self the main characters, the libretto brilliantly shows the music in the context of his life. And by making it his “life in review,” we are spared the typical Hollywood biopic schmaltz and aggrandizement that tends to make the subject somehow apart from real life. As shown here, Morton was a deeply flawed, sometimes evil man, who sometimes did some appalling things, but whose music was his life, and whose music transcends his life. It’s very appropriate that the “Stairway to Heaven” that dominates the set looks more like a stairway to an elevator door, one which could go in either direction.

Don’t let this give you the idea that this is a dark and depressing musical. Quite the contrary, it is filled with life, with flash, with laughs, with sex, and with good old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. Everything clicked for me, from the concept, to the music, to the acting, to the set design. My only quibble was with the lighting, and that quibble starts and ends with one follow spot being noticeably dimmer than the other, a tech glitch I found very distracting.

Eric B. Anthony’s portrayal as Morton needs discussion. First, the shadow of Gregory Hines in the original cast has made this a difficult show to revive – Mr. Anthony makes the role his own, and makes us forget any preconceptions. Second, Mr. Anthony takes what is essentially an unlikable character and makes us care for him. He charms us just as easily as he charms all the women in his life. And he makes no last-minute changes to justify some after-death salvation. He stubbornly holds onto his love of his music, and it is that, and nothing else upon which he will be judged.

In my piece on “Five Guys Named Moe,” I made the observation that I judge revues by a simple criterion – would a simple concert of the same music be better or worse than the musical created to hold it. A concert of Jelly Roll Morton’s music would indeed by a fine evening in the theatre. But without the context of the libretto and the performance by Eric B. Anthony, it would be significantly less rich.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

[POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
My first comment! by TheaterReview
"And he makes no last-minute changes to justify some after-death salvation."

Didn't he, though? I thought in the final scene, after death, he was begging to go back and make things right with his buddy and Sweet Anita?

I was kind of upset by that, as it seemed a ham-handed way to put a happy ending to the musical... a non-existent redemption.

Other than that, I quite agree with your review. It was the best musical about racist, philandering megalomaniac I've seen all year.
Hmmmmm.... by Dedalus
I must have been dozing at that point. I thought the moment was more regret than begging situation -- an "I'm saying this because I must moment" that struck me as consistent with his feelings for Anita and Jack. It seemed to me to be something he would have said regardless of whether he had some cosmic judgment hanging over his head.

But, I certainly concede I may have grossly misinterpreted the moment (there are many precedents :-)).

Brad


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