amBroadway | ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ stuns at Encores!

Encores!Jelly’s Last Jam
Encores! Jelly’s Last Jam
Photo by Joan Marcus

When the Encores! series returned to City Center in 2022 following the pandemic shutdown, its initial season back began with rocky, uneasily revised productions of “The Tap Dance Kid” and “The Life,” but finished with an absolutely glorious “Into the Woods” that deservedly transferred to Broadway. Last season was pretty solid, including a fine production of an unworkable musical (“Dear World”) with a starring performance from Donna Murphy, an “Oliver!” that was misdirected but still enjoyable, and a superb “The Light in the Piazza” starring Ruthie Ann Miles.

This season, which began with a bang thanks to the classic musical comedy “Once Upon a Mattress” starring Sutton Foster, has now moved forward with a phenomenal production of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” a rarely-seen 1992 musical about early 20th century jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, where the songs combine the music of Morton and Luther Henderson with new lyrics by Susan Birkenhead.

It takes the form of a musical drama in which an underworld, ghostly figure known as the Chimney Man (Billy Porter, who plays up the diva edge) questions the newly deceased Morton (a stunning Nicholas Christopher) over his life, including his claim to have single handedly invented jazz and his racism against Blacks, as demonstrated by his insistence that he is of Creole ancestry.

In spite of its considerable book issues (especially an inert second act), “Jelly’s Last Jam” is a fascinating portrait of a troubled artist with show-stopping jazz arrangements and dance choreography. The Encores! production, as directed by Robert O’Hara, is unusually professional and polished in nature, looking and sounding like a true Broadway production.

City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org. Through March 3.

‘The Ally’ tries to take on the Israeli-Palestinian political divide

Photo by Joan Marcus

Among the many noteworthy new Off-Broadway plays that are currently running, I felt a particular need to see “The Ally,” a new drama by Itamar Moses (‘The Band’s Visiti”) about a liberal, early-middle-aged, Jewish writer and college professor (played by Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother”) who suddenly finds himself uncomfortably caught in the middle of opposing arguments, politics, and factions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what constitutes anti-Semitism.

Even before I even knew about the play’s specific subject matter (which, needless to say, is especially relevant at this moment in time), I identified with the idea of a being a well-intentioned person who is caught in the middle of an increasingly polarized environment, where merely signing a petition intended to promote accountability and social justice leads to serious questions and consequences. 

While one can appreciate how Moses attempts to avoid easy answers and cover different viewpoints and accusations with facts, empathy, and historical background, “The Ally” is less of a drama than a vehicle for long-winded, back-and-forth arguments, plus some social commentary and occasional satire. For instance, a speech by a college student in favor of Israel is strident but eloquent.

By the end, “The Ally” may leave you feeling exhausted. But then again, isn’t this material worth digging into given the state of the world and the issues at stake? And it ultimately offers a cathartic kind of hope that one can stand behind different causes and express different identities without feeling too overwhelmed or emotionally drained.

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org. Through March 24.