Jam is right. Jelly’s Last Jam feels less like a traditional musical than sitting in on a really good jam session with talented musicians. Usually after a musical I can identify one or two songs that stood out on a first listen. If you’re like me when it comes to jazz, I’m not always sure where one song ends and the next one begins. With this, the music is all Jelly Roll Morton’s with Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and it seems like they just keep on singing, talking, and then float on into another song, or, maybe it’s the same song. That’s what’s awesome and unique about Jelly’s Last Jam, the narrative feels like the music created by the person whose story it’s telling. I should also say that I don’t have a huge tolerance for jazz, but I was completely engaged and enthralled throughout the evening. Theater Latté Da, which makes its home at The Ritz Theater in NE Minneapolis, has produced another top notch production.
We begin with Jelly’s death and the show tells us the story of his life through the eyes of Jelly, whose vision is rose colored, and that of the Chimney Man, who sees things more truthfully through a lens at times, red with anger. The Chimney Man is like St. Peter at the Pearly gates, and he battles Jelly throughout the retelling of his life to show the truth. We learn Jelly was an innovator and musical prodigy, along with also being arrogant and ill tempered. He has a very high opinion of himself and a very low opinion of everyone else. It’s the classic tale of talent overcome by ego, the star who cannot stop sabotaging his own happiness and success. Pride cometh before the fall, it was hard not to think of Will Smith’s current situation in some moments. He’s charming at first but as the story goes on, he becomes less and less likeable. Luckily, the splot surrounds him with characters we do genuinely enjoy. Like his best friend Jack the Bear, his lover Anita, and Miss Mamie.
Reese Bitts stars as Jelly and he has the charm to sell us on Jelly’s initial successes but is also able to dig deep down and spill fourth some truly vile and repellent emotional outbursts. Probably a good time to mention there is a lot of hateful and racially charged dialogue in this show, much of it spouted by Jelly. The entire cast is splendid, and one aspect I wasn’t expecting going into the show was the dancing. Not only were all of the performers vocally and dramatically impressive but boy, they sure can dance. That was one of the surprise joys of the show, it’s not a huge dance show, but when they dance it’s in synch and outstanding. You don’t see enough tap now days and when it’s done well, as it is here, it’s a marvel to behold. Andre Shoals as the Chimney Man and second lead, was probably my favorite performance. A great voice, and his character being otherworldly, we got a lot of different flavors mixed together, a little bold, a little funny, a little spicy. You sense from before you even know what his role will be that he is in charge and pulling the strings. Alexcia Thompson as Anita tries to be the voice of reason against Jelly’s self destructive urges, and she plays the frustration and sense of futility really well. Dwight Xaveir Leslie nails the best friend sidekick role, always trying to see the best in Jelly. He really is the character I most identified with, he was always holding out hope that everyone would get along. I can’t list everyone but there was nice character work as well from Julius Collins and Cynthia Jones-Taylor.
If you’ve ever been to a Theater Latté Da production you know that every aspect of their shows is on par with any other theater in town. The Director and Choreographer of the show is Kelli Foster Warder. I’m not surprised that the same person was responsible for those two jobs because the entire staging of the show feels like it has been choreographed down to the smallest movement. The way she moves characters on and off stage, the way they move around the set feels so organic and fluid in a way that only comes from knowing exactly what you are doing moment to moment. There are a lot of names in the music department this time and the music is so good I feel like I really want to mention anyone who was involved with that aspect. We have Sanford Moore (Music Supervisor), Tommy Barbarella (Conductor), Denise Prosek (Associate Music Director), and Jason Hansen (Music Arrangements/Orchestrator) not to mention the band itself Barbarella on piano, Steve Jennings on drums, Geoff LeCrone on guitar & banjo, Joe Mayo on clarinet/flute/saxophone, and Chris Smith on bass. Wonderful Set Design by Eli Sherlock that reminded me of the abstract suggestions of some of the old cartoons where you’d just the outline of something and your mind filled in the rest. The stage is set with all these different styles of doors, and they are all that is needed to signify a different time and place. The Lighting Design by Craig Gottschalk perfectly captured the set to highlight this almost dreamlike simplification, and also used very dramatically at the Chimney Man’s command a couple of times.
Jelly’s Last Jam is playing through May 8th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.latteda.org/ It’s a postmortem of a complicated artists life and a chance for one last jam session.
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