By Tulis McCall

I don’t know what you have planned for this weekend, but if you have not seen this gorgeous Encores! production of “Jelly’s Last Jam” at City Center – I suggest you rethink whatever you have going for you and GET THERE!

From the tippity-top of this story of Jelly Roll Morton all the way to the final final, this is one, you should pardon the expression, “jam packed” event.  There is not a moment of hesitation or mild mannered anything.  We are warned from the get go by Chimney Man (Billy Porter) that this is a tale of a man with a gift and a huge case of denial about the earth, from which he came.  And this will be his funeral.  We watch as Jelly is tossed from soaring success to the depths of despair while all around him the crowds watch.  The Three Hunnies Hunnies (Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren and Allison M. Williams) are a dispassionate Greek Chorus leading us all through the maze that will be the tale.

For starters, Jelly insists he is Creole, not black.  And therein lies the beginning of tale.  Even his Gran Mini (Leslie Uggams in fine voice) wants nothing to do with him. “If you spit in the water, there’s no going back to the well.”

Encores!
Jelly’s Last Jam; Leslie Uggams; photo by Joan Marcus

The more the crowds circle round Jelly, the more he protests that there is no black book in him, and that his ancestors came directly from France. And as if to purposely make your head spin, while Jelly is denying his heritage, he also declares that HE created jazz.  On his own.  Period.  We see that path that he chooses over and over again.  It reminded me of the sad story of Dylan Thomas.  There was no stopping either one.

This is a series of one stunning performance after another with particular standouts being Joaquina Kalukango as Anita and Tiffany Mann as Miss Mamie, both of whom you hope will lean over the footlights and invite you to a private affair right after the show.  Nicholas Christopher holds it all together with style, skill and enthusiasm and is the center of everyone’s universe.  Billy Porter is glorious as our guide.  Both ruthless and sympathetic – he is the one who keeps the engine running and makes the tale breathe until the very very end.  The tale starts in a little joint somewhere between Heaven and Hell.  Despite Wolfe’s weak script, under Robert O’Hara’s crisp and determined direction that is exactly where the story concludes.

Special mention must remade to Music Director Jason Michael Webb, The Encores! Orchestra, the ensemble and the choreography of Edgar Godineaux and Dormeshia. Their combined efforts knock it out of the park.  More than once the audience exploded into applause in the middle of a dance routine.

Jelly’s Last Jam – book by George C. Wolfe, Directed by Robert O’Hara with choreography by Edgar Godineaux and tap choreography by Dormeshia, Guest Music Director Jason Michael Webb  The Encores! Orchestra. Set to jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton’s iconic tunes with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and musical adaptation and additional music composed by Luther Henderson

WITH Nicholas Christopher, John Clay III, Tiffany Mann, Leslie Uggams, Joaquina Kalukango, Billy Porter, Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Allison M. Williams

ENSEMBLE – Raymond Baynard, Shawn Bowers, Amanda Castro, Joshua Dawson, John Edwards, Ari Groover, Morgan Mcghee, Jodeci Milhouse, Ramone Nelson, Aul Niebanck, James Patterson, Antonia Raye, Salome Smith, Taylor Mackenzie Smith, Funmi Sofola, Ordan  Simone Stephens , Renell Anthony Taylor, Nasia Thomas , Sir Brock Warren , Chanse Williams

Through March 3, 2024 – Tickets starting from $45 (fees included) can be purchased online at NYCityCenter.org, by calling 212.581.1212, or in person at the City Center Box Office. Access City Center Club is available to those 35 years of age and under and offers a limited number of $28 tickets (fees included) to City Center productions. For more information and to sign up, visit NYCityCenter.org/Access. New York City Center is located at 131 W 55th St between Sixth and Seventh avenues.