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Good times roll 

Alliance Theatre jams with Jelly

Given the choice, most dead people would probably prefer to cool their heels in heaven rather than sweat buckets in hell. But hell doubtless has the better tunes. Judging from the reckless lives of most great musicians, the underworld reverberates with one long jam session.

The Alliance Theatre's wickedly glorious Jelly's Last Jam riffs on the susceptibility of sin in the life of one particular musical genius, pianist Jelly Roll Morton (J.D. Goldblatt), considered by some -- notably himself -- as the inventor of jazz. Beginning with Morton's death in 1941, Jelly's Last Jam shows the pianist watch his life flash before his eyes as a scorching musical montage that spans the seediest and swankiest jazz hotspots of New Orleans, Chicago and New York.

An enigmatic, otherworldly figure called The Chimney Man (Billy Porter) acts as the "concierge" of Morton's soul so he can learn the error of his ways. As a young musical prodigy (Eric B. Anthony), Morton feels stifled in a light-skinned, "Creole" New Orleans family and can't resist the siren call of the city's "darker" corners. And who can blame him? Beignet peddlers and tinker-percussionists roam the streets and the likes of bawdy Miss Mamie (Allison Upshaw Spragin) and trumpeter Buddy Bolden (funny, crazy-eyed André Ward) hold court at the clubs. No family musical, Jelly's Last Jam revels in the music's juke-joint origins, as if restoring raunchy lyrics sanitized for mass consumption.

The show takes the arc of a showbiz rise-and-fall story, but seizes on the flaws in Morton's character for its musical inspiration and thematic energy. Morton's grandmother (LaVon Fisher) casts him out from his genteel family with the thunderous blues song "The Banishment." Nevertheless, "The Roll" spends his life treating darker-skinned African-Americans with condescension at best. Denying one facet of his heritage, he exaggerates another by claiming credit for jazz itself, as if he's standing on the shoulders of giants.

Directed with larger-than-life panache by Kent Gash, Jelly's Last Jam doesn't stint on spectacle, from back-flipping dancers to dazzling, massive marquees. And some of the images go beyond eye candy. Act One ends with the show-stopping "Doctor Jazz," with Morton dancing before a group of masked minstrel figures. With his faced unconcealed and his light-colored suit, Morton stands apart from the caricatured chorus line. But he dances with them, indicating he's not so far above them as he believes.

Gash assembles a uniformly superb cast, from the joyously hoofing Anthony to Karole Foreman as Morton's true love Anita, who croons a heartfelt "Play the Music For Me." Goldblatt boasts a smooth, ringing voice and confident ease on stage, reminiscent of Matthew Broderick's winning boyishness. And he fakes us out. Early on he does the simplest soft shoe, but cedes the dancing spotlight to the rest, as if he's "just" a singer. Then about an hour into the show, he reveals himself to be a virtuoso tap dancer in his own right.

You can make some minor quibbles about Jelly's Last Jam. Some of the showgirl costumes don't flatter the performers, and Porter, despite his snaky charisma, lacks the sheer, voice-of-God presence his character calls for. Plus, show creators George C. Wolfe, Susan Birkenhead and Luther Henderson track Morton's misdeeds without really showing him earn enlightenment. The crescendo plays literally like a death-bed conversion.

Overall, it seems like forever since Alliance staged such a big, jubilant musical on its own. With such undulating choreography and high-flying musicianship, Jelly's Last Jam fires on all cylinders, without being produced in close conjunction with a major out-of-town playhouse or company. Gash's production belongs with such earlier Alliance shows as The Boys From Syracuse, The Amen Corner or Hot Mikado. No jukebox musical revue, Jelly's Last Jam presents a rich, at times challenging, celebration of African-American cultural contributions. This could be heaven after all.

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