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Comparing Notes 

Medea, the Musical fractures the Greek tale; Jelly's Last Jam recounts the life of a jazz pioneer

Wednesday, Jul 19 1995
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Every now and then you walk into a theater expecting little - then, 10 minutes into the spectacle, you get your socks knocked off. Who can blame me for dragging my feet to a show called Medea, the Musical? Had I listened to colleagues who saw John Fisher's previous works, I'd have expected a tremendously clever, funny piece. Medea is, as they say, no joke; this is a seriously riotous evening.

In the play-within-a-play, Medea, the Musical is actually the show a group of actors is putting on, and we watch the nutty cast run through chaotic rehearsals. And what a cast it is: There's a jealous understudy, a couple of bare-chested babes (male), a weepy ex-lover of the leading man, and a cranky piano player.

The play's busy director (played by director/writer/actor Fisher himself) has determined that actor Paul Tena ought to play Jason gay. Paul (all the actors go by their real names) is gay, so that's not hard. The lead actress (Elsa Wolthausen) complains to Paul that she's going to look like a jerk playing a Medea who falls for a fag. Their discussio stretches on into the evening, and Elsa winds up dragging Paul to a headbanger club and a beer-drinking session on Mount Tam with members of th club's rock band. Then, the impossible happens - Paul, an avowed homosexual, falls for Elsa.

Fisher is wickedly clever: The parallels between the Medea story (in which Jason convinces a smitten Medea to betray her people for him) and Paul and Elsa ( in which Elsa seduces Paul away from his "kind") are pointed and hilarious. Amazingly, he sustains the parallels throughout, and they continue to pop up in unexpected and hysterical ways.

The "musical" itself is unforgivably horrid; though we do forgive it, of course, because it's so absurdly bad it's funny. New lyrics applied to Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" tell the story of a lustful stepmother, Phaedra, and her charge, Hippolytus: "Oh, son I got it bad/Let's run away/Don't tell Dad." Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" turns into a number about the living dead: "I should have burnt that stupid crypt/I should have thrown it to sea." Thankfully, the musical aspect of the show happens to be completely entertaining: Elsa can sing like nobody's business, and the cast dances spirited ensemble numbers (including one with choreography borrowed from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video). As we watch this pathetic show come together, Elsa and Paul's romance peaks and falls, resolving itself on opening night.

All the members of the cast deserve notice; for the sake of space, I'll just name a few in addition to Elsa and Paul: Calum Grant is great as the rocker; Kegan Stedwell makes a wonderful lusty Phaedra; Rocelyn Halili has a few precious moments as the stage manager; and Gabriel Macen play's Paul's wounded ex-lover with panache. That the cast is good is partly a testament to Fisher's directing; he knows how to elicit a distinct comedic performance from each actor.

I, for one, will be the first in line for Fisher's next opus, even if it's called O.J., the Musical.

Jelly's Last Jam, presented by Best of Broadway, is more of a "straight" musical, in more than one sense of the word.

In 1938, Jelly Roll Morton wrote a letter to Ripley's Believe It or Not: "Dear Mr. Ripley: In your broadcast of March 26, 1938, you introduced W.C. Handy as the originator of jazz, stomps, and blues. By this announcement you have done me a great injustice." He continued: "I myself happen to be the creator of jazz. ...I may be the only perfect speciman today in jazz that's living. ...I guess I am 100 years ahead of my time."

Whether his claims hold any thruth is debatable; that it requires arrogance of awesome proportions to make them is not - and that's the character George C. Wolfe took on when he created the Tony Award-winning Jelly's Last Jam, which opened last week in the Golden Gate Theatre. The New Orleans-born "lover of women, inventor of jazz, owner of 27 suits" lived for his music and for glory - the latter kept him in a state of paranoiac vigilance over his reputation until he died.

But arrogance, Wolfe proves with this production, can be endearing -and when not endearing, compelling. Coupled with Morton's music, Jelly's Last Jam gives a full portrait of Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe Morton. When the plot drags, the cast takes up the slack with sheer energy - from leading man Maurice Hines, who moves as if weightless, to the most annonymous members of the chorus, who sing with such power it'll curl your hair.

A mystical character called Chimney Man opens the show, placing Morton in the tradition of African music, of those who "drink from the vine of syncopation." "I'm gonna stay up yo shit till I break you," Chimney says, which, he proves, is no idle threat. While this device - the spirit ushering Jelly through his life to view his mistakes - works. I couldn't help thinking (with much chagrin) of A Christmas Carol.

The spectacle offers surprisingly little historical information about the emergence of jazz or Morton's era - other than mentions of W.C. Handy and others who try to deny Morton his glory - relying instead on Morton's character and biography. This entails not a little psychologizing; Jelly, we learn, was born into a pretentious, ultragenteel Creole family who spoke French and danced minuets - and who eventually cast him out of the gilded cradle when he took to hanging out with the wrong (dark) kind of people (they turned out to be "right" for his musical development, however). The implication is that this rejection damaged him, causing him, paradoxically, to dole out the same snobbism that hurt him so badly.

If there's a problem with this musical, it's not that Morton is an unsympathetic character, it's that we don't get a relationship to hang our hat on until late in a very long first act. His affair with Sweet Anita (played with fire by Nora Cole, an original cast member) and the subsequent triangular tensions among him, Anita, and his sidekick, Jack, tear at your heart, but until then, you feel oddly detached from the story.

But you don't care about any of that when the cast gives it up. Young Jelly (Savion Glover) tearing it up alongside Maurice Hines is a joy to behold, and the Hunnies - a three woman Greek chorus dressed in black bodices - can make anyone weak in the knees.

Medea, the Musical runs through July 29 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in S.F.; call 436-0806. Jelly's Last Jam runs through July 30 at the Golden Gate Theatre in S.F.; call 776-1999.

About The Author

Laura Jamison

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