There's never been a Broadway musical quite like "Jelly's Last Jam."
Oh, there have been plenty of revues in tribute to black composers, such as "Sophisticated Ladies" (Ellington) and "Eubie!" (Blake). But "Jelly's Last Jam," currently at the Lyric Opera House, is a full-fledged book musical that dares to examine its protagonist in an unvarnished -- and unflattering -- light. This show views Jelly Roll Morton not only as a jazz pioneer, but as a racist who spurned his own black roots.
Nor is that director and playwright George C. Wolfe's only gutsy move. In Wolfe's conception, Jelly is a tap dancer. More specifically, tap dancing serves as a visual metaphor for his creativity. And, judging from the fluid, exuberant dancing of Maurice Hines and Savion Glover (as Young Jelly), the composer's creativity was as audacious as the egotism that led him to boast he invented jazz.
The show takes place on the eve of Jelly's death, in "the Jungle Inn . . . somewheres 'tween Heaven 'n' Hell." Jelly's guide is a sinister character called the Chimney Man (Mel Johnson Jr.) who informs him that he has one night to defend his soul and determine where he will spend eternity.
Contrived as this framework may seem, it gets an unconventional spin from Wolfe, who gives it a somber center and, with the help of his collaborators, shapes the show's components into a seamless whole. In addition to Hope Clarke's smooth choreography, much of the credit belongs to Susan Birkenhead, who has enhanced Jelly's music with lyrics that progress the plot, and to Luther Henderson, whose additional music and adaptations keep the score flowing throughout the piece.
As an example of the way this works, early on there's a Henderson number called "Street Scene" set in the Creole composer's native New Orleans. Glover's Young Jelly gets so caught up in the colorful action and melodious sounds of the street venders that he begins conducting, using a gumbo ladle as a baton. He and Hines, who choreographed the tap numbers, then engage in some tap-dancing one-upmanship that is a pure tour-de-force.
But while Hines' Jelly may see this as a joyous trip down memory lane, the Chimney Man and the three Fury-like "Hunnies" who serve as his henchwomen keep forcing the composer to re-live painful episodes from his past. The show gets its grit from these episodes -- particularly the first-act finale in which the chorus appears in servants' jackets andminstrels' white lips in a mocking response to Jelly's racial slur against his darker-skinned best friend.
Stanley Wayne Mathis' performance makes the decency of this friend as unmistakable to us as it is foreign to Jelly. Similarly, as Anita, the love of Jelly's life, Nora Cole exudes a type of pride with which Jelly is completely unfamiliar -- pride derived from self-respect.
Maurice's younger brother, Gregory, originated the role of Jelly, and the brothers bring different qualities to the character. Although Maurice's dancing is slicker, he's better at conveying joy than pain. Gregory's Jelly, on the other hand, was so cold-hearted, he could seem truly evil.
The show isn't perfect. At the Lyric, the amplification of the orchestra frequently obscures the lyrics, and a mass of electrical cables at the front of the stage detracts from Robin Wagner's lean set designs.
The text also has some flaws. Blaming Jelly's inability to love on the grandmother (Freda Payne) who rejected him is a bit pat -- and, so, it could be argued, is the sweetened ending.
But Wolfe is too adroit a playwright to merely be writing about one man's potential salvation. Whether the real Jelly earned a place in heaven is of less consequence than what can be learned from his triumphs -- and especially from his failings. It's a complex mix, but like jazz itself, it blends into a hard-edged high time.
'JELLY'S LAST JAM'
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Call: (410) 494-2712