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“Jelly’s Last Jam” reviewed

We’re at the point in the Encores! arms race where it’s just impressive how elaborate a production its creators can pull together during a ten-day rehearsal period. The tap numbers in City Center’s revival of Jelly’s Last Jam, feats of synchronization and syncopation, choreographed by Dormeshia, that transport you straight to the streets of early-20th-century New Orleans, or to the rhythmic ecstasy of a Chicago juke joint, are genuine showstoppers. Often in commercial Broadway musicals, you see tap delivered with a few winks of irony — by repressed Mormons or even Squidward — whereas here, the movement is a cause in and of itself, fresh and alive.

That’s fitting for a show about the invention of jazz, or at least about a man who claimed he was responsible for it. Jelly’s Last Jam (originally on Broadway in 1992) takes Jelly Roll Morton, the self-mythologizing prodigy who at the very least popularized the form and wrote some of its earliest published music, and puts him in a purgatory nightclub of the afterlife nicknamed the Jungle Inn. The real Morton was born into a Creole family in New Orleans in 1890 and found the blues and other early forms of jazz in his teens via trips to the city’s red-light district before traveling north and reconceptualizing himself as a star in Chicago. In the telling of George C. Wolfe, who conceived of the musical and directed its first run, Morton distanced himself from darker-skinned musicians and denied his own Blackness. The accuracy of that characterization is debatable, but as thematic fodder on which to hang a big concept musical, it’s a killer idea. We’re here to revisit his life story and to sit in judgment of his sins, which in turn becomes a way to think about self-hatred and appropriation within the history of this music. “Yes, he who drinks from the vine of syncopation,” announces the show’s narrator, the “Chimney Man” (Billy Porter, voice completely hoarse and back on-book throughout Act II), “but denies the black soil from which this rhythm was born.”

The setup makes Jelly’s Last Jam a great fit for an Encores! production: It’s massively thematically ambitious, flawed in all sorts of intriguing ways, and rarely staged probably because of all that — and as a bonus, it can all take place on one set. Director Robert O’Hara and scenic designer Clint Ramos here have conjured an ominous black-and-gold version of the Jungle Inn on the stage of City Center, providing the air of a seedy club where someone might have a dark hour of the soul several hours after midnight. The show depends on having a Morton who can be charming as he is snakelike, and luckily the role fits Nicholas Christopher like one of his character’s 27 tailored suits. Christopher, who was just weeks ago holding down the fort as Sweeney Todd between Josh Groban and Aaron Tveit, is fantastic: Pretty early in the show, you start to wonder what he can’t do — dance, spit lyrics at alarming speed, croon, seduce the audience with a wry grin, or pull off a persuasive breakdown. He’s ever so winning, too, when sharing the stage, whether across from his eager younger self (Alaman Diadhiou), climbing up in the world with the darker-skinned partner he eventually turns against (John Clay III), or while trying to seduce the one woman Morton couldn’t seem to get over (recent Tony winner Joaquina Kalukango, also sizzling herself). You walk away hoping you’ll get to see Christopher in another starring role, and soon.

The score is built around Jelly Roll Morton’s own music — with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and some additional music by Luther Henderson — and it serves as a showcase for Morton’s genius as well as the talents of this production’s starry cast. Jason Michael Webb, the guest musical director, fills the theater with sound and energy, making the first act feel like a series of dramatic crescendos, each outdoing the last. There are plum solos for the many figures in Morton’s life, each carried off by a Black theater star. In shorter appearances, Leslie Uggams twists the knife as Morton’s disappointed Creole grandmother, and Tiffany Mann belts the roof off as blues singer Miss Mamie with the aid of Okieriete Onaodowan’s cornetist Buddy Bolden. The most effective scene-setting presences, however, may be the trio of svelte Hunnies (Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, and Allison M. Williams) who stalk the stage like Jazz Age renderings of the Fates. They’re both sensual and ethereally inhuman, and not just because they can slip their legs over their heads with ease.

Jelly’s Last Jam’s first act builds to a combustible and unsettling sequence where Morton, acting in jealous spite against Jack the Bear, tries to force him to wear a doorman’s coat, and then dances in front of an ensemble wearing those coats as he mimics the aesthetics of minstrelsy. It’s a thrilling and haunting punctuation mark on the drama — step back a little further and think about how much of the American musical form depends on the sound of jazz, and then about how Jelly’s Last Jam acts as an artistic prequel to Wolfe’s work in Shuffle Along. But the show’s second act can’t follow up on all the ideas thrown out in the first. Now (and apparently then, according to the New York Times review), Jelly’s Last Jam returns from that explosive start-to-intermission, and the back half feels like a short coda. Morton heads to New York, where he can’t make headway in Harlem or with predatory white businessmen further downtown (as we see the show’s only white cast members), and then, increasingly dissolute, ends up in Los Angeles, heading toward his death. The counterpoint between Morton and the Chimney Man loses steam, as Wolfe himself struggles to arrive at a judgment and the script becomes full of grand, empty pronouncements. O’Hara and his production carry off the grandeur of a final funeral sequence well, but it all remains abrupt and incomplete. That doesn’t diminish the electric feeling of all that came before, however. Instead, you feel thankful that the show has done so much work already to wrestle with Morton, with jazz, and with the musical itself.