Tapping Along From the Aisles

GREGORY HINES'S tap shoes looked comfortable. They could have stood a shine. Who would notice as he and Savion Glover brought down the house as Jelly and Young Jelly in "Jelly's Last Jam" on Broadway? I noticed because I had ordered tickets before the show won 11 Tony nominations last spring, more than any other, and my seat was front-row center - closer to great dancing than I'd ever been during the years I sat on the aisle as a reviewer.

If only my dad were there. We weren't exactly like Jelly and Young Jelly. Hines after all made a movie, "White Nights," with that other dancer - something Baryshnikov. And Glover made a movie, "Tap," with Hines and such senior hoofers as Bunny Briggs, Steve Condos, and the late Sammy Davis Jr.

But Dad did tap a little in private. I'd catch him when no customers were in the store. The linoleum in front of the three-view mirror made a nice sound even without taps on your shoes. I picked up a few steps from him and a young woman who taught tap and ballet in our small Midwestern town. Dad loved Fred Astaire, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, and such lesser stars as Hal LeRoy and Mitzi Mayfair. From a distance. Except for local talent shows on the stage, our only musicals were on the movie screen.

But it was all enough to hook me on show biz, and whether writing about it or not, I wallow in theater wherever I can, from "Macbeth" in Spanish in Mexico City to "A Doll's House" in Greek on Cyprus to "Charley's Aunt" in Arabic in Tunis to "The Seagull" in English in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live.

And the week I saw "Jelly's Last Jam" - along with "Crazy for You" and the resounding revival of "Guys and Dolls" - took me back past all the conquering British musicals of the Andrew Lloyd Webber ilk, not to mention Stephen Sondheim's sophisticated hits and such rocking treats as "Dreamgirls," "The Wiz," and "Your Own Thing."

Suddenly it was a week in the late 1950s when "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story" were new and I saw them on Broadway back-to-back.

"My Fair Lady" - grace, wit, delight in making music from Shaw's story of a professor polishing the surfaces but not destroying the soul of a Cockney guttersnipe.

"West Side Story" - genius, breadth, a contemporary edge bringing "Romeo and Juliet" into the urban ethnic scene of street-gang strife.

Somehow in the 1957 season "Lady," so wonderful, seemed so bland after "Story."

Now, 35 seasons later, "Guys and Dolls" still has its crackling Frank Loesser score from even earlier (1950), and "Crazy for You" borrows from Gershwin of still earlier. And now, despite their state-of-the-art production, these shows seem wonderful but bland compared to "Jelly's Last Jam," which finally won three Tonys, including one to Gregory Hines for leading actor in a musical.

NOT that "Jelly" is in the musical realm of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," worthy of the opera singers who revived it on records in recent years. "Jelly" uses Jelly Roll Morton's music from long before the '50s (plus some present-day additions).

But "Jelly" has that contemporary edge. It recalls what Bernstein said about the evolving American musical: "The more a show gets away from pure diversion, the more it tries to engage the interest and emotion of the audience, the closer it slides toward opera."

What gives "Jelly" its edge is the 1990s perspective of writer-director George C. Wolfe applied to Jazz Age days that are often presented as mindless revelry. Not entirely unexpected after the satirical flaying of racial attitudes in Wolfe's smaller-scale "Colored Museum" of several years ago.

Jelly Roll Morton, the self-styled inventor of jazz, is forced to reexamine his life in a kind of judgment day, or rather night, presided over by a satanic Chimney Man, with Greek chorus commentary by what used to be called a girl trio, the Hunnies.

Did Jelly deny what are represented as the black roots of his art? Was his talent sufficient not to share the credit? As Jelly sings the rollicking old tune "Dr. Jazz" - "Hello, Central, get me Dr. Jazz..." - it begins to seem like crass self-glorification. The interplay of bygone loyalties and betrayals - seen now when racial sensitivities are more in the open - does "engage the interest and emotion" in Bernstein's phrase.

This purpose would have been even better served without a few scenes raising distracting questions of theatrical taste. Yet "Jelly's Last Jam" seems to reinvent the American musical even while it remains marvelously entertaining as song and dance.

New York Times critic Frank Rich notes, as many have, that the show is imperfect, with the second act in particular feeling unfinished - "but when people are making history in the theater, they tend to be in a rush."

I know what Dad would think. He'd think it was great that tap-dancing is still alive and well. Gregory Hines's singing and acting help him deserve the Tony. But it's his dancing that is the counterpart of Morton's musical genius in this role. Not the airy grace of Astaire, not the lightly-and-politely of Bojangles, but his own kinetic, contemporary energy - which he can harness to a timeless down-front routine with Savion Glover, the next generation. And I could almost have touched them across the footli ghts. Maybe you can tell they touched me.

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