COSTA MESA — To tell the story of Jelly Roll Morton in the musical "Jelly's Last Jam," director George C. Wolfe cleared the stage of traditional furniture and of much of its equally traditional emotional touchstones. In his 1992 Broadway debut, Wolfe (and his colleagues) created a place between heaven and hell where a newly dead antihero could examine his self-hatred and tell the real story of the pain he'd been too arrogant to allow for in life, except when writing music to help quiet it.
When Wolfe cleared the stage for the story of Jelly Roll Morton, he also brushed aside a lot of cobwebs from an often creaky art form. He brought an extremely frank and unsentimental examination of racism to the musical while brilliantly exploiting its power to rivet, seduce and fill up a theater, even one as big as Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, where the show runs only through Sunday (it will come to Pasadena and Palm Desert in January).
Wolfe's groundbreaking Broadway production is intact and still breaking ground in Orange County. Some of the original cast remain, most importantly Savion Glover, the tap-dance kid who plays young Jelly, electrifying as he learns to shake off the etched-in-stone perfection of the Massenet his Creole family made him practice daily. Playing classical music is "like wakin' up in the mornin' and knowin' you gonna be alive at night," Jelly is advised by a trumpeter named Buddy Bolden, danced with surly grace and sinuousness by Ted L. Levy.
In the fabulous act-one scene in which Jelly gets an education, black flats go flying up and sideways, and the stage literally opens up to take Jelly from his cloistered life of privilege to the streets of New Orleans. Glover slinks his way through the barkers, sexy women and street musicians until he meets Miss Mamie (Cleo King), a blues queen with a powerhouse voice, warm and rich and funky, that contains all the joy and the pain that Jelly will seek to put in his music.
Upon Jelly's death, a mysterious emissary named Chimney Man (Mel Johnson) offers him a Dickensian deal: If Jelly can tell his tale honestly, he can save his soul. In this place between life and death, the young and mature Jelly exist simultaneously, learning from each other in a continuum of time.
Maurice Hines is the grown Jelly, as full of bile and pride as he is of genius and longing. Hines replaces his brother Gregory, who originated the role on Broadway. (Obba Babatunde played the role in an earlier, 1991 production at the Mark Taper Forum also directed by Wolfe.) Comparisons must be extremely tedious to both brothers, but in this case there is no avoiding them.
Starting with the good news, Maurice does not imitate Gregory, and his Jelly has different strengths and vulnerabilities. As an actor, he is especially good when Jelly is old enough to know he is destroying his life but still can't stop himself from repelling the people who love him. While Maurice's voice isn't terribly strong, it is flexible and mournful and his phrasing is piquant.
His dancing is, of course, very good, but here's where the comparison works against him. Gregory is simply the more charismatic performer, and no matter how many terrific spins Maurice delivers he can never capture the breathtaking quality that seems to come effortlessly to his brother. In the scene where Jelly dances with his younger self, Maurice appears winded next to the incredibly concentrated energy coming from the coltish Glover. The balance of the exchange is thrown off.
Gregory was also better at being hateful, but Maurice is better at being hurt. Jelly's adopted mother Gran Mimi (Freda Payne) turns him out for consorting with riffraff, and Jelly never, ever gets over that rejection, inflicting that same terror on those who love him most. Payne plays the matriarch as a vain ice goddess who shows no remorse for turning her back on the boy. The performance is too unbending; Payne makes you feel that Jelly is infinitely better in the street, where he can be near the earth mother Miss Mamie.
The score seamlessly blends Morton's own songs with more theater-oriented ones by Luther Henderson and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. It is a very smart blending, which manages to sound authentic and also add an extra layer of meaning appropriate to the vantage point of a man reviewing his life. It is a score so intoxicated with Jelly's idea of music that even Gran Mimi, the lover of Massenet, delivers her banishment song (by Henderson) in the form of a scorned-woman blues ballad.
Three women called the Hunnies serve as Greek chorus to the story, and, as vamped by Tracy Nicole Chapman, Rosa Curry and Kena Tangi Dorsey, they are sexiness personified. They stand behind Jelly at the pool table in black teddies, rolling their shoulders and offering a smoldering "Eight ball--in the pocket" as if shooting pool were the hottest act imaginable.