Mardi Gras and Jelly Roll on Stage
Song-and-dance shows dominate Broadway, plus Ayckbourn comedy
NEW YORK — THE HIGH ROLLERS SOCIAL AND PLEASURE CLUB Musical revue with music by Allen Toussaint and others. Conceived by Judy Gordon. Directed and choreographed by Alan Weeks. At the Helen Hayes Theatre.
THE good times are boisterously rolling with "The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club," a revue-style entertainment designed to evoke the pleasures of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. "Whoo-ee, whoo-eee!" shouts the effervescent Jester (Eugene Fleming) by way of inducing the audience into the joie de vivre.
A succession of musical numbers (a few of them with crudely suggestive lyrics) comprise the entertainment. The vocal chores are impressively handled by female vocalists Deborah Burrell-Cleveland, Vivian Reed, and Nikki Rene, and by male singers Lawrence Clayton and Michael McElroy, in addition to Mr. Fleming. Wonder Boys Keith Robert Bennett and Tarik Winston tap dance to tunes with lyrics like "Feet don't fail me now." Not to worry. Their footwork is dazzling.
The setting (by David Mitchell) is the social and pleasure club of the title "with a side trip to the Bayou," which the entire company celebrates in "Fiyou on the Bayou." Members of the High Rollers band come downstage for occasional solos, lending variety to this unflaggingly energetic Broadway version of a Mardi Gras celebration. JELLY'S LAST JAM Musical comedy directed by and book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. At the Virginia Theatre.
Gregory Hines's amiable personality ameliorates the less than amiable image of Jelly Roll Morton presented in "Jelly's Last Jam." Part biography, part fantasy, the musical opens in 1941, the year of the composer's death. The place is the Jungle Inn, "a lowdown club somewhere's 'tween Heaven Hell." Jelly is being initiated into the mysteries of the hereafter by the Chimney Man (Keith David), the august proprietor of the netherworld.
The opening is a natural prelude to what follows - a fanciful account of the rise and fall of Jelly Roll Morton. The Playbill explains that Ferdinand Le Menthe (Jelly Roll) Morton "was born in the Creole gentry of New Orleans in 1891, but was irresistibly drawn to the excitement of the infamous Storyville district, where he made his reputation as a pianist. At a young age he left New Orleans to travel the country, landing in Chicago in the 1920s. He and his band, the Red Hot Peppers, became the top black
recording artists for RCA records in 1927-28."
"Jelly's Last Jam" incorporates a medley of Morton tunes into a score to which adapter Luther Henderson and others have also contributed. George Wolfe's book emphasizes key aspects of the Morton story. One was Morton's position in the ethnic pecking order as a Creole, from which he looked down with scorn on ordinary African-Americans. In the Wolfe version, the discrimination affects and ultimately destroys his relationships with loyal pal Jack the Bear (Stanley Wayne Mathis) and sweetheart Anita (Tonya P inkins). At their subsequent Los Angeles reunion, Jelly discovers that there is no renewing old acquaintances with two people he has treated so cavalierly. Jelly's disputed claim to have invented jazz provides the musical with an accompanying theme.
Through it all there is Mr. Hines, the charismatic tap-dance virtuoso and musical theater star, to endow Jelly with a persona that softens some of the antihero's rough edges without compromising reasonable portraiture. Whether in recurrent solos, in duets with Jelly's younger self (the remarkable Savion Glover), or in ensembles, Hines sets the pace for "Jelly's Last Jam."
From his spectacular entrance, brilliantly abetted by set designer Robin Wagner and lighting designer Jules Fisher, the supple-voiced Hines responds to the syncopated rhythms of the score and supplies magnetic energy. The sum of the production's excellent parts includes notable contributions by Mr. David's formidable Chimney Man, Ann Duquesnay (an imperious Gran Mimi) and Mary Bond Davis (a rollicking Miss Mamie), as well as Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope, and Allison Williams. While Hines and Ted L.
Levy devised the tap choreography, the Playbill credits Hope Clarke with the strutting and high-stepping that comprises much of the show's dance movement. A SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS Comedy by Alan Ayckbourn. Lynne Meadow directs. At the Music Box.
The ostensible business of "A Small Family Business" is the manufacture and marketing of furniture. This being an Alan Ayckbourn play, the real business is the creation of bizarre comic situations involving apparently ordinary people. Their crimes and misdemeanors include dubious financial dealings, bribery, blackmail, marital infidelity, and - reflecting an unusually dark mood for Mr. Ayckbourn - a slight case of murder.
The comedy resembles what Boris Aronson used to call a play about relatives. Besides wife Poppy, businessman Jack McCracken's tribe includes a brother, children, and assorted in-laws. For plot purposes, there is also Benedict Hough, a private investigator who can be had for a consideration.
Hough arrives at the partying McCracken household to report that young daughter Samantha has been spotted and videotaped shoplifting at a local department store. When furious denials get her nowhere, Samantha falls back on a familiar defense: "Everybody steals things." Events prove her more than right. It turns out that Jack's company has been selling furniture to an Italian firm that then resells the products at marked-up prices.
Most of "A Small Family Business" proceeds in familiar Ayckbourn fashion. When one character says, "That's all I wanted to say," the spectator can be sure it isn't. When an adult asks Samantha what book she's reading, the flippant teenager replies: "You wouldn't even understand the page numbers." Referring to one family member's penchant for cooking, a McCracken son-in-law remarks that the family member's Lancashire hot pot "could start the Wars of the Roses all over again." Such is the persiflage with w hich Ayckbourn flavors his own suburban hot pot.
When it gets down to the relatively serious matter of murder, "A Small Family Business" confirms the truism that woman's work is never done. Suffice it to say that detective Hough doesn't leave in a huff - or in any other perceivable manner. Meanwhile, the family just goes on partying.
The cast, directed by Lynne Meadow, takes Ayckbourn in stride. Brian Murray registers every degree of frantic desperation as he seeks to save Samantha from the law and the family business from the Italians.
The comedy features a setting by John Lee Beatty that comprises the sitting room, kitchen, hall, landing, and bedroom in "the houses of various members of the family over one week." If I counted correctly, this is a 10-door comedy with plenty of closet space for concealment. The between-scenes intervals are enlivened by flashing lights and jazzy breaks - technical equivalents of the verbal snippets that add up to Ayckbourn dialogue.