O.J. Simpson was not the first African-American celebrity to declare, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.!” So to speak.
The pioneering jazz musician Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, was born to Creole parents in New Orleans sometime between 1884 and 1890. As his gifts as a pianist, composer, arranger, and self-promoter brought him renown—first while touring in the South, then in Prohibition-era Chicago—the light-skinned Morton bragged of his French ancestry and denied the rest. Perhaps this tragic flaw was in some way calcified by the grandmother who, upon discovering that the teenage Morton had a job playing music in a “sporting house”—the sport being the one where men pay for sex—kicked him out of her home and permanently severed ties with him.
It is the reductive habit of too many music biopics or bio-plays to locate their subjects’ imperfections in a single, traumatic early-life occurrence. Whatever it was that compelled Morton to forsake his black identity, that denial is the central conflict in Jelly’s Last Jam, a celebrated but rarely revived musical that hit Broadway in 1992. Susan Birkenhead added lyrics to Morton’s instrumental compositions; George C. Wolfe, who would go on to direct Tony Kushner’s landmark two-part epic Angels in America the following year, wrote the book. Gregory Hines won a Tony Award in the title role. Hines, of course, was a virtuoso dancer/choreographer and a strong singer and actor—not a pianist.
Director Matthew Gardiner’s energetic new production of Jelly’s Last Jam has taken a similarly risky approach to casting: He’s found a virtuoso piano player and singer who isn’t quite so marvelous an actor.
In defense of Mark G. Meadows—the 27-year-old D.C.-born jazz artist who had to be persuaded to take on the show’s title role—he’s never done musical theater before. At all. He’s a natural performer, likeable and relaxed; he’d be fine in a less pivotal part. But he lacks the sheer force of personality to inhabit Morton, a man whose other grave sin, in Wolfe’s telling, was that of pride. While no one denies Morton was a seminal figure in the evolution of jazz, his Kanye-esque claim to have invented the genre all by himself complicated his legacy. Jazz historian Floyd Levin said Morton carried business cards proclaiming himself the “Originator of Jazz and Stomps,” along with a diamond in every pocket of his suit. (Inevitably, there are latter-day musicologists who insist that reports of Morton’s exaggerations are, well, exaggerated.)
Anyway, to see the kind of room-filling presence the role requires, we needn’t look far. Felicia Boswell has performed on Broadway as Josephine Baker, in Wolfe’s well-received Shuffle Along, which closed less than a month ago. She also played Diana Ross in Motown. It’s little wonder she steals the show as Morton’s on-again, off-again lover Anita. She gets her closest competition from Cleavant Derricks as Chimney Man, an otherworldly figure in a top hat and tails who, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, forces the freshly deceased Morton to revisit episodes from his life where he hurt people. Besides Anita, those Morton wronged include Jack the Bear (Guy Lockard), a loyal pal from Morton’s early touring years who later learned how jealous and cruel his old companion could be.
The tap-dancing so central to the Broadway production (which is all I remember from seeing it on a high school trip in 1993; it was my first Broadway show) has here been transferred from Morton to five members of the ensemble. Daniel Conway’s set design is superb, transforming Signature’s versatile “Max” space into an elegant, low-lit Jazz Age nightclub, wherein a coiling ramp extends far into the floor. With 18 cast members and 18 numbers, the show has exuberance enough to power through the deficiencies of the material, by which I mean not Morton’s music, but Wolfe’s less-than-persuasive effort to shape a narrative of sin and redemption around it. (His book won a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a Tony, so your mileage may vary.)
Jelly’s Last Jam looks and sounds terrific, but there remains a stubborn wispiness to the story, like a scene or two is missing from its oddly brief second act. On what basis does Wolfe imagine that Morton repented at the gates of Heaven? The soul singers who’d begin to emerge about 15 years after Morton was stabbed to death in 1941 articulate in music the tension between the flesh and the spirit. But the nickname “Jelly Roll” came from slang for a specific part of a woman. It wasn’t her soul.
To Sept. 11. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$94. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.