Playwright-director George C. Wolfe's take on the career of Creole jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton is debatable. Wolfe's 1992 Broadway musical insists that Morton's professional rise and fall was due to his escalating racial self-hatred rather than inevitable swings in musical taste, treating his proud and only somewhat exaggerated claim to having invented jazz as a grotesquely clownish arrogance. But Wolfe's tartly funny script, Susan Birkenhead's clever lyrics, and Luther Henderson's ingenious adaptations of Morton's brassy, buoyant tunes (superbly played under conductor Linda Twine) make Jelly's Last Jam a provocative piece that celebrates the vitality and variety of African American music while also reminding us that its popularity has failed to rectify the injustices inflicted on the people who created it. And this touring production is packed with exhilarating performances: Morton's older and younger selves are played by dancers Maurice Hines and Savion Glover, whose brilliant tap routines are a marvelous metaphor for Morton's pianistic genius; spectacular support comes from Nora Cole as Morton's long-suffering lover and, in cameo solos, from soul diva Freda Payne and blues belter Cleo King. Add Hope Clarke's snazzy choreography and Toni-Leslie James's period-perfect costumes and you've got a sensational show that also adds a serious voice to the national debate about America's multiracial identity. Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, 902-1500. Through April 23: Thursday-Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 PM. $21-$44.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Harry Butler.