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‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Review: A Musical Paradise, Even in Purgatory

That painful history can be alchemized into thrilling entertainment is both the central idea and the takeaway experience of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the jaw-dropping Encores! revival that opened on Wednesday at City Center. Especially in its first act, as it tells the intertwined stories of Jelly Roll Morton and the early years of jazz, it offers up wonder after wonder, in songs and dances so neatly conceived and ferociously performed that in the process of blowing the roof off the building they also make your hair stand on end.

It might not be immediately apparent from its strange framework that the musical could produce such an effect. The book, by George C. Wolfe, who also directed the 1992 Broadway original, introduces us to Morton (Nicholas Christopher) at the moment of his death. That’s when he is greeted, in a kind of nightclub limbo, by Chimney Man — so called because this forbidding psychopomp, played by the fascinatingly strict Billy Porter, sweeps souls to their destination. Accompanied by a trio of louche, bespangled “Hunnies,” he first puts Morton through a recap of his life, with an emphasis on his lies, betrayals and musicological self-aggrandizement.

Tiffany Mann as Miss Mamie, a local blues singer. One of her powerhouse numbers points Morton on the road north.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

How many of those lies and betrayals really happened is unclear; most of the musical’s specific situations and supporting characters seem to be inventions or conflations. But the self-aggrandizement is all too real. Morton, not content to be merely a great pianist and composer in the early years of jazz, repeatedly claimed to have “invented” the genre. It is for this sin — a sin against history but also against Blackness — that the show seeks to prosecute him.

If only real trials were as entertaining. Morton’s privileged but stifling youth in a wealthy, light-skinned New Orleans family is sketched in a series of numbers that efficiently establish the expectations of the Creole class and his rebellions against it. Like most rebellions, his involve exposure to different kinds of people; when the boy (beautifully played by Alaman Diadhiou) sneaks into the dives and brothels on the Blacker side of town, the sounds of tinkers, ragpickers, beignet men and voodoo vendors, layered and compressed and powerfully polyrhythmic, open his ears to a new kind of music.

As presented here, that music is sensationally catchy. (Though mostly Morton’s, it also includes material written by Luther Henderson for the 1992 production.) Somewhat miraculously considering its knottiness, it has been set with lyrics, by Susan Birkenhead, that spark and sparkle. In numbers like “The Whole World’s Waitin’ to Sing Your Song,” she weaves scat and slang and classic Broadway wordsmithery (“Slide that sound/Roll that rhythm/Syncopate the street-beat with ’em”) into a multipurpose dramatic net.

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