Running time: approx. 2 hrs, 20 min
Trailblazing jazz piano player and showman Jelly Roll Morton is dead and in limbo at the Jungle Inn, a sort of purgatory where he relives his past in order to reconcile his sins: his lifelong self-tout as the "inventor of jazz"; his arrogance in womanizing, partying, and scamming; and, most heinous, his disavowal of his black ancestry, which, throughout his life, led to cruel dismissals of those closest to him. He was a Louisiana Creole, a black man who boasted that there wasn't an ounce of "coon blood" in him: Ouch. With those sorts of character traits, this is one man who is really hard to admire.
There are flaws in this Zachary Scott Theatre Center production that detract from the show's main selling point: the incredible performances by a company that includes Zach mainstays Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson, and Felicia Dinwiddie, led by guest artist Ronn K. Smith, and packed with fine singers, sharp movers, and, in the young Bryan Pacheco, one of the most engaging tap dancers you're likely to see on an Austin stage. When the outstanding Smith enters for the first time, you know you're going to see a performer of the highest caliber. Even stock still, Smith beams out something special. Somehow, it's not enough to overcome a feeling that something is missing.
Perhaps the thing missing in this rambunctious show about Morton saving his eternal soul is soul. Yes, there is redemption at the end, but George C. Wolfe's take on the life of "The Roll," despite the flashy numbers and high-octane (and very loud) music, is a dark tale. And director Dave Steakley, while giving this musical plenty of adrenaline jolts, doesn't seem able to overcome that darkness; very little of the humanity of the characters makes it past the footlights to stir the audience's empathy. Ultimately, this production follows a well-trod musical path, and ends happily, but it seems that happy ending is barely earned.
Now, this is a story of strong-willed characters trying to make it in an era of racism and shady business dealings, where a piano man is a musical con man, and vice versa, with the emphasis on the vice. So the parade of figures in Morton's life isn't pretty (in spite of Susan Branch's luxurious costume design). Historically speaking, Jelly's Last Jam honestly taps into the complicated mood of the era, and Wolfe often uses tap dance to help tell the story. At its best, the dancing reveals Morton's inner struggle, when there is one. Ra-Sean Holloway's choreographic imagination goes a long way in filling in the play's narrative blanks.
Maybe it's the atmosphere that's just too gloomy, maybe it's the inevitable technical glitches in running so intricate a show, maybe it's Wolfe's script that seems to miss the beat from time to time, or maybe it's that there's simply too much style on display for the real substance to penetrate. Zach has set a high standard for musical production, and this effort overflows with production values, but it takes more than style to have soul.
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