Self-described as the concierge of the soul, the Chimney Man is not having it.
This voodoo keeper of the gate to eternity is too pretty and too powerful to take rubbish from anyone, especially someone as messy as Creole jazzman Jelly Roll Morton. When Jelly, on the verge of death, tries to verbally abuse him, the Chimney Man snaps his fingers and Jelly begins to suffocate.
Those magic moments animate director and choreographer Kelli Foster Warder's production of "Jelly's Last Jam," which opened Saturday at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. Filled with exuberance and haunting imagery, the finely crafted, -acted and -sung production highlights both pathos and wit.
"Jelly's" evokes sheer joy because its robust artistry, from Reese Britts' debonair title performance to Andre Shoals' commanding Chimney Man. The musical and dance numbers are smoothly staged and arresting. Jelly's wounds, and the hurts he inflicts on others as he spews internalized racism, summon gut-bucket heartbreak.
It's hard to believe that this is the first time "Jelly's" has been produced in the Twin Cities — 30 years to the month after the show first bowed on Broadway. That may have to do with it being a demanding and a tricky project.
It riffs on America's racial caste system intra-racially, and with harsh language that still grates. Jelly is a New Orleans Creole man whose family is proud of its French ancestry but disdainful of its Black side. Formally trained in music but yearning for something fresher and edgier, Young Jelly (commendable Jordan M. Leggett) is thrown out of his home by his grandmother after she finds that he has been playing syncopated piano in a bordello.
He teams up with Jack the Bear (Dwight Xaveir Leslie) and they go on an adventure. But the racism that he carries deep down comes out in moments of tension, and he vilifies Jack and love interest Anita (Alexcia Thompson) in the crudest of terms. The show makes a statement in the fact that Jelly, who proclaims himself the inventor of jazz, claims the cultural genius of the very people he disdains.
George C. Wolfe wrote the book and directed the Broadway original with Gregory Hines in the title role and tap dynamo Savion Glover as Young Jelly. What Foster Warder lacks in cast size — 11 versus 30-plus in the original — she makes up for in potency.
The production, with a band conducted with frisky soul by Tommy Barbarella, evokes chills. When Jelly, who has been big and boisterous throughout the narrative, quietly cops to the truth of who he is, he is freed into the marvelous light.
Craig Gottschalk designed the show's mood-changing lighting scheme that heightens the drama in a story that takes place on the balconies and funky New Orleans milieu created by set designer Eli Sherlock. Jarrod Barnes designed the evocative period costumes.
There is hardly a weak link onstage. Britts delivers a self-made Jelly so self-assured, you can see how his lies to himself begin to overtake his true creative gifts. You want to root for him but his sweet music comes with a bitter aftertaste.
Veteran performer Shoals owns the stage as the Chimney Man. Elegant in top hat and black tail tuxedo and with a vest that matches his cane, he strolls confidently as he takes Jelly on a journey through his life. Thompson, a former Children's Theatre apprentice, is brilliant and Leslie is full of vim and verve. As brothel owner Miss Mamie, Cynthia Jones-Taylor scorches on "Michigan Water" in a duet with the impeccable Julius Collins as Buddy Bolden.
First-class tap numbers are performed by the entire cast. But one tapper in particular evokes the emotion and funk of Glover. Time Brickey's soul-releasing steps are as moving as music itself.
In the show, Shoals' Chimney Man tells us that this is a work about a people torn from their ancestral home but whose cultural messengers spread its glory everywhere. Foster Warder's production shows that that work, by turns poignant, palpable and gratifying, continues.
'Jelly's Last Jam'
Who: Book by George C. Wolfe, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and music by Jelly Roll Morton and Luther Henderson. Directed and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 8.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
Protocol: Proof of full course of vaccine or negative test within 72 hours. Masks required.
Tickets: $35-$53, 612-339-3003 or latteda.org.