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Theater review

‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ rolls into music and message at Cape Fear Regional Theatre


The joint is jumpin’ with “Jelly’s Last Jam” at Cape Fear Regional Theatre, featuring gorgeous choreography, soaring voices and heart-stopping moments as the story of Jelly Roll Morton, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, dazzles the stage.

The facade would continue with Morton showcasing his many talents including singing, dancing and playing his fancy tunes on piano if it weren’t for the Chimney Man, a spiritual guide who commands Morton to review his life — the good, the bad, and the downright hateful and ugly.

In the opening scene, Creole-born Morton, played by Andre Jordan, is dying. As the Chimney Man is conjured out of nowhere, Morton is forced to relive his life, some parts of which he would rather forget and gloss over. The Chimney Man, played by Je’Shaun Jackson, starts at Morton’s childhood in New Orleans, where his conservative Creole family turns him away after he begins to love African American and Black-rooted music and dance.

From there, the show explodes into music and dance onstage as Morton is forced again and again to examine his life choices.

It is a heavy show with themes that deal with racism, childhood trauma and failure, but the music is woven in to bring a lightness to the production.

Every ensemble member shines as brightly as the bulb lights and gold accents on the stage. The music and dance explode with toe-tapping performances that resonate with telling the story of Morton as he reconciles his successes and failures.

As the Chimney Man boldly sings, “You have to take the grit with the gravy, the pain with the song.”

Director and choreographer Brian Harlan Brooks, who also directed “The Color Purple” at Cape Fear Regional Theatre last season, said the production is a play, not a musical, but that the music is part of the story.

“The music is there to point out the themes of the play and give the audience respite with the story as Morton’s life unfolds from beginning to the end. The themes of the show are heavy, but I think we can all agree the themes in life are heavy. Life does what life does. I think people can identify with the challenges, and I think people come to the theater sometimes for a bit of escapism. You’ll get that through the music and through the experience. You will see the joy in discovering the roots of this music and the art form,” said Brooks.

The voices in the cast fill the theater with show-stopping performances by Jordan and Jackson as well as Melrose Johnson as Anita, Josh Walker as Jack the Bear, Mondisa Moden as Miss Mamie, and local actress Ayana Washington as Gran Mimi.

A trio of girls who serve as a Greek chorus for the show are played by Sha’Air Hawkins, Tyanna West and Aalong Smith. They lift every scene they are in as well as help support the characters onstage. They are especially important as the Chimney Man keeps the time and the story on track.

It is a show that will leave the audience reflecting on their own lives as Morton confronts his inner demons and grows from them at the end of his life.

There are only two weeks left of the production, which has sold out some performances and brought fans back a second time.

Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. May 17-20 and 24-27. Matinees are at 2 p.m. May 20-21 and 27-28. Tickets range from $15 to $28.

The show is rated PG-13 and contains racially charged themes and language.

Tickets are on sale at the box office at 910-323-4233 or at www.cfrt.org.

Fayetteville, Cape Fear Regional Theatre, Jelly's Last Jam, entertainment, theater