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STAGE : Artistic success doesn't always breed complacency. Playwright-Director George C. Wolfe, right, is taking another look at his exuberant musical about jazzman Jelly Roll Mortonfor a possible trip to New York after its record-breaking L.A. run : Will 'Jelly' Keep Rolling on Broadway?

May 05, 1991|SYLVIE DRAKE | Sylvie Drake is The Times' drama critic

Like a song with a false ending, "Jelly's Last Jam" is not quite over.

The show may have broken all previous records for an eight-week run at the Mark Taper Forum before shutting down on schedule April 21, but that was hardly the end. Whatever one's thoughts on George C. Wolfe's exuberant musical about jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, one thing was always predictable: a Broadway future.

According to Wolfe and producer Margo Lion, Jujamcyn Theatres has come aboard as a co-producer, Wolfe has taken a couple of second looks at the show, a meeting of the collaborative team is set for June to discuss changes, and a low-profile reworking of the piece is planned for the fall.

Assuming all this goes off on schedule--and you can just about bet on that--it could be Broadway in the spring for "Jelly."

Why not? Warts and all, "Jelly's Last Jam" is one of the more forceful and engrossing musicals to have come down the pike in a long time. It also happens not to be several things: it is not a "black" musical encompassing a dated and demeaning white man's vision of African-American life ("Porgy and Bess," "Show Boat"); it is not a celebration of gospel ("Dont Bother Me I Cant Cope" and countless less prominent successors); it is not an all-song, all-dance revue, such as "Ain't Misbehavin' " or "Blues in the Night."

It is , on the other hand, a not-entirely-flattering book musical about Creole jazz composer Morton (a.k.a. Jelly or the Roll and played by Obba Babatunde) by an unencumbered African-American playwright-director who knows how to bring irony as well as purpose to the portrait--and does it with complexity, imagination and flair, mostly using Morton's own music.

Wolfe, who wrote "The Colored Museum," a clever skewering of self-generated black stereotypes that not all persons of color were sure they appreciated, is still young enough at 36 that the collegiate side of him often percolates to the surface.

It was much in evidence in some of the more impudent aspects of "Colored Museum." And it's in evidence in "Jelly's Last Jam" in his use of the shadowy Mephistophelean messenger, the Chimney Man, modeled after Baron Samedi, a trickster figure in Haitian voodoo, whose traditional silhouette in cutaway coat and top hat reminded Wolfe, he said, of New Orleans chimney sweeps. (Had it not been for the impressive Keith David in the role, it would have come across as even more of a youthful cliche than it is.)

We examined Jelly's life through his death: Jelly is dying but won't believe it; Chimney Man challenges him to take a good, hard look at his actions and the events that shaped them--and believe it. As cliches, go, this one is cloaked in a certain eloquence, which helps, but also in rhymed couplets, which doesn't.

The couplets may be gone in the revised editions, says Wolfe, but the Chimney Man character, who may be modified, is unlikely to disappear since he underpins the plot. Both are part of a sluggish beginning that Wolfe says he wants to rethink.

"You reduce ideas to geometric equations," he volunteered about the experience of doing a musical. "If it works, the emotion comes back. If it doesn't, it doesn't. My feeling," he said after taking an early second look at the show, "is that Act II has its own intrinsic rules. Act I is a good, smart musical, but doesn't have its own rules yet.

"I want to try to re-examine Jelly's transformation from a human being into an icon. I'd like to focus some energies on the point where art and hype become one and the same, and Jelly starts believing that his gifts come from him. There's a theatrical way of telling a story that I don't feel I've quite achieved."

Wolfe's self-assessment is encouraging for the show's future. There is work to be done. But it leaves out the show's many strengths, especially the primary one: Wolfe's unhesitating embrace of stereotypes, verbal bugaboos and other unmentionables, the better to explode them. "Dr. Jazz," an arresting mock-minstrel show that ends Act I, for instance, is a rousing display of ironic self-revilement.

It climaxes a scene in which Jelly, who historically denied his blackness ("no coon blood in this Creole"), tries to humiliate his partner, Jack the Bear, whom he suspects of having an affair with his lover, Anita.

The symbolic gauntlet in this duel is a doorman's red coat, emblem of slavery, which Jelly puts on when the insulted Jack rejects it. The act ends with the liveried Jelly fronting a mincing chorus line in blackface masks doing a biting sendup of the worst and most classic stereotyping.

"It's not completely successful yet," says Wolfe, who plans to refine the scene, "but it's a reflection of Jelly's dementia, which is a reflection of our own--a chorus of coons in some twisted mirroring of Jelly's denial and self-exoneration. It's mocking the source to serve the inventor. It's its own mutant form. Inside the buoyance, it reflects a complicated culture."

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