As a young man, Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe chafed against his strict Creole upbringing, ultimately finding freedom in the music that rang out from the streets of New Orleans.
Taking the name Jelly Roll Morton, he embraced the flair and finery of his new identity, but along the way, he lost himself. By the time of his death in 1941, the high-toned, hot-headed piano player and self-proclaimed inventor of jazz had alienated many of his friends, family and fellow musicians.
In a spectacular new production of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” on stage through Feb. 12 at Le Petit Théâtre, the highs and lows of Morton’s life are laid bare, from the very beginning to the bitter end.
On paper, it’s easy to see why this regional premier is so successful.
The show has some serious Broadway bona fides, starting with writer George C. Wolfe, whose acclaimed career also includes last year’s hit jazz-age musical “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.”
Added to that, “Jelly’s Last Jam” features Broadway veteran Ted Louis Levy in the title role. Levy appeared in the original 1992 Broadway production of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” even sharing a Tony nomination for his tap choreography. (Gregory Hines, who snagged a Tony for his lead performance in that production, was Levy’s co-choreographer).
Throw in a live, local New Orleans jazz band led by Tom Hook, perched atop an elegant, two-story set design by Bill Walker, and audiences are primed to be wowed even before taking their seats.
But “Jelly’s Last Jam” is more than the sum of its parts. From the opening curtain, the show is charged with an indelible energy, an overwhelming burst of song and dance, light and sound.
Give credit to the show’s creators — Wolfe, lyricist Susan Birkenhead, and composer Luther Henderson — for wrangling Morton’s music and capturing just the right tone of America’s early jazz scene, but it’s the largely local cast, directed by Jackie Alexander, that really brings this show to life.
Levy commands the stage with grace and poise. His performance balances Morton’s legendary self-centered swagger and venomous outbursts with moments of gentleness and vulnerability, and his numerous tap solos are a highlight of the show.
Robert Diago DoQui plays Jack the Bear, Morton’s boon companion throughout their years on the road, and Idella Johnson plays Anita, the love interest that makes Morton consider settling down. Both performers go toe-to-toe with Levy, establishing a natural chemistry that shines throughout.
The driving force of the show is a fine-tuned ensemble of singers and dancers — too many to name here, all too good to single out only a few — who turn in a full evening of inspired performances.
Choreographed by Traci Tolmaire and outfitted by costume designer Julie Winn in brightly colored zoot suits and flapper dresses, the cast rollicks and ricochets across the stage during the liveliest song-and-dance numbers, like “The Whole World’s Waiting to Hear Your Song” and “That’s How You Jazz,” taking over both levels of the set and even spilling out into the aisles of the theater.
Bluesier numbers smolder hot, like “Michigan Water” performed by Tomeka L. Williams as Mamie and Kebron Woodfin as Buddy Bolden, or the heavy-hearted “Last Chance Blues” by Levy and Johnson.
Throughout “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the band cooks, the dancers swing, and the good times roll, but the polished production never loses sight of the complicated character at the center of its story, the light-skinned Creole boy who, struggling to find his place in a black-and-white world, invents the one thing he can call his own: jazz.