Review: JELLY'S LAST JAM at Pasadena Playhouse

In Kent Gash's production, the Roll is on a roll.

By: Jun. 14, 2024
Review: JELLY'S LAST JAM at Pasadena Playhouse
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The Roll is back! Back among the living, back at the keys, back on the road across America and toward some kind of spiritual redemption. JELLY’S LAST JAM, the 1991 musical about the life of Ferdinand Le Menthe “Jelly Roll” Morton (1891-1941), the self-dubbed "inventor of jazz" written by George C. Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead, is enjoying a mini renaissance of late with a new production at The Pasadena Playhouse coming on the heels of a recent New York City Center revival. One could say the Roll is on a roll.

Director Kent Gash’s production in Pasadena serves up equal parts heat and cool, a slick and sweaty celebration of a man who was as vibrant and dangerous as his music (adapted here by Luther Henderson). Under the musical direction of Darryl Archibald and choreography of Dell Howlett – both of which are first-rate – the evening cooks.

This is due in no short measure to the efforts of headliner John Clarence Stewart in the title role. Stewart gets plenty of assistance from Doran Butler (as the young Jelly Roll Morton) and particularly Jasmine Amy Rogers who could charm the petals off a rose as the Roll’s put-upon lover, the singer Sweet Anita.

Wolfe structures his tale as a kind of confessional tour with Jelly Roll reliving his turbulent life while embellishing and/or lying his way through the journey. Rejected by his family and thereby cast out of a life of relative ease, Jelly crashes into the brambles of a life lived in between. A spiritual – and equally swingin’ - guide known as the Chimney Man (Cress Williams) pops up periodically to call out Jelly on his self-pity and general bullshit. And a trio of hot ladies who go by the Hunnies (Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill, Janaya Mahealani Jones and Naomi C. Walley) front the ensemble. Other key performers (and players) include legendary horn player Buddy Bolden (Grasan Kingsberry) and Jack the Bear, the friend and partner who Jelly royally screws over.

For reasons we are led to believe are connected to his status as a man stuck between two races and cultures, Jelly is one mercurial SOB. Granted, he can make some money, cut a sharp figure (with an assist by costumer designer Samantha C. Jones) and delight plenty of women, but the boastful piano man is also petty and cruel. We’re inclined to hate the messed-up SOB as much as we want to join his band…and the guy is already dead!

As penetrating a storyteller of the Black experience as he is a skilled director, Wolfe (whose plays include THE COLROED MUSEUM and SPUNK and the magnificent BRING IN DA NOISE, BRING IN DA FUNK) may have envisioned a deeper investigation of a soul in conflict than he ended up writing. Jelly’s break with his snooty Creole grandmother (Karole Foreman) is supposed to be shattering and identity-defining, but here it feels more like a footnote.  When the music kicks in, particularly in the splashier numbers like “That’s How You Jazz” and “The Chicago Stomp” everything angsty and/or full of rage falls away,

Well, almost everything. Rogers’ rendition of “Play the Music for Me” is as white hot as it is self-assured; a first act showstopper. Once Jelly and Anita have set their terms, we go immediately into “Lovin’ is a Lowdown Blues,” a series of bedroom interludes blasted out by the Hunnies that takes Jelly and Anita’s from bliss to breakup. The play doesn’t give us nearly enough of enough of Anita, but we get another hot dose of Rogers’ sultriness with “The Last Chance Blues.”  

Stewart, a wonderful singer-dancer, has the magnetism and taps into Jelly’s braggadocio and his inadequacies. He’s plenty fun to watch. Stewart may not be the force of nature of the late Gregory Hines (who played the role on Broadway, winning a Tony) or Brian Stokes Mitchell (Hines’s replacement), but he carries the performance. In the role that gave us one of our first looks at Savion Glover, Doran Butler establishes that he is also one to watch.

It’s been a few decades, but a generation of southland theater goers might  remember that JELLY’S LAST JAM has its roots in Los Angeles. The pre-Broadway world premiere was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in a cast that featured Obba Babatunde as Jelly, Keith David as the Chimney Man and – once again - Karole Foreman.

Wolfe is always hot and Jelly rolls on. Perhaps a Broadway revival should be in the offing.

JELLY’S LAST JAM plays through June 23 at 33 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.  

Photo of John Clarence Stewart and cast by Jeff Lorch


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