Twenty-four years after it opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway (then named the Virginia Theatre), George C. Wolfe’s universally admired musical Jelly’s Last Jam has been announced for the Signature Theatre’s 2016-2017 season along with a complete list of the cast and creative team.
Headlining the production is Mark G. Meadows, a critically acclaimed jazz pianist and vocalist operating in the Washington, D.C. jazz scene, who will be making his acting debut. Also headlining is Tony-winner Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls) as The Chimney Man and Helen Hayes Award-winner Felicia Boswell (Motown the Musical, Memphis) as Anita with Elijah Mayo as Young Jelly, Iyona Blake as Gran Mimi, Guy Lockard as Jack the Bear, V. Savoy McIlwain as Buddy Bolden and Nova Y. Payton, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Eben Logan as The Hunnies. The ensemble is rounded out by Chris Broughton, DeWitt Fleming, Olivia Russell, DeMoya Watson Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb and Stephen Scott Wormley.
The ragtime biographical musical about the life and times of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (aka Jelly Roll Morton), which was penned by Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead and features the music of Morton (with additional tunes by Luther Henderson), will be directed by Matthew Gardiner, choreographed by Jared Grimes (After Midnight), musical directed by Darius Smith and feature costume design by Dede M. Ayite.
Jelly’s Last Jam according to a press statement from the Signature Theatre, “tells the story of one of jazz music’s pioneers with a jazz, blues, and ragtime score based on Jelly Roll Morton’s original music. Journey from the back alleys of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago to the stages of New York with ’he who drinks from the vine of syncopation’ in a sizzling memoir of pride, lust and a past denied.”
“George C. Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead’s musical was a game changer in the American musical theatre when in premiered on Broadway in 1992,” said director Matthew Gardiner in a statement. “It’s a musical that I’ve loved for years and it has one of the most beautifully rendered and complex characters ever written for the musical theatre in Jelly Roll Morton. When I met Mark G. Meadows, I knew I found our Jelly. A remarkable jazz pianist and vocalist from Washington DC, he is one of the most exhilarating talents I’ve ever encountered. I am so excited to reimagine this piece with a phenomenal jazz artist, alongside Broadway’s Felicia Boswell, Cleavant Derricks and a brilliant company of actors. I’m also thrilled to collaborate with choreographer Jared Grimes, who will pull tap dance into the story in new ways. This vibrant and important story is one I can’t wait to share with Signature audiences.”
Jelly’s Last Jam made its premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1991 and starred Tony nominated actor Obba Babatundé (Dreamgirls, “Miss Evers’ Boys”) in the lead role before it transferred to Broadway in 1992. It earned 11 Tony nominations, including Best Book, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Director. Tap dancing legend Gregory Hines and theatre diva Tonya Pinkins took home accolades in the Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical categories, respectively. The show also took home six Drama Desk Award trophies.
Both Wolfe and Birkenhead have spoken about the difficulty of casting the show over the years, particularly with the casting of the lead role, which calls from a “light-skinned” actor who can both sing, tap and/or play piano. In a 2015 editorial, Pinkins noted that “Jelly‘s path to Broadway and multiple-award winning fame was as a circuitous as Morton’s life,” clarified that one of the key reason the original production standout was Hines’ ability to infuse “his own inimitable hoofer style with George’s concept of tap dance as a metaphor for interior monologue.”
Jelly’s Last Jam will be presented August 2 through September 11 within the MAX Theatre at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. Single tickets are available in person at the Signature Box Office at 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington, by calling (703) 820-9771 and online at www.sigtheatre.org.