From La Cage Aux Folles to The Jungle Inn
by Michele Dubach
When audiences walk into Signature Theatre and take their seats to see Jelly’s Last Jam, it will be far from a typical play-going experience. Signature is in the process of converting their 275-seat MAX Theatre into The Jungle Inn, a 1930s era jazz nightclub where audiences will have the unique experience of being something much more than spectators.
“In this play the audience is a character in a way it isn’t in other shows,” says Jelly’s Last Jam director Matthew Gardiner. “The audience is part of the stage.” Gardiner says the seating makes the play more encompassing as the set is designed to make audiences feel they are part of the story – the story of one of jazz music’s most electric and fascinating entertainers: Jelly Roll Morton.
In many ways the set is a reflection of Jelly’s personality as an elegant but deeply flawed and haunted man. Scenic Designer Daniel Conway, who designed Signature’s previous productions of Sunset Boulevard, Chess and Hairspray, describes the Jungle Inn as a slightly run-down art deco club. Conway says, “The set has both the dual equivalence of jazz. It’s not symmetrical, it’s unusual, it’s risky, a little sexy… a little dangerous.” The scenic design includes three different stages and Conway says, “dancing takes place in a number of different locations in and around the audience.”
Beyond the stage magic, transforming the MAX Theatre into the Jungle Inn, showcases Signature’s unique flexibility in staging plays. Signature is a cavernous space, a square room or box with a balcony. Unlike other theaters, there are no stationary seats bolted to the ground. For each new production the set isn’t the only thing that’s being built; the entire theater has to be rebuilt.
Technical Director Andrew Fox says it’s also a practical challenge to meld the two worlds of the design: the creative team wants to build and the realities of audience seating. Infrastructure for sound and light must be changed for each show. He says, “every time you move those chairs around you have to think about what the view from those chairs are.”
The clock is another consideration in the process. The crew began taking down the set for La Cage Aux Folles on a Sunday and in just under two weeks the set for Jelly’s Last Jam was up and the space had been completely transformed.
Gardiner considers this production to be one of Signature’s most immersive experiences to date. “It’s electrifying,” says Gardiner. “The tap dancers’ shoes are right in your face. And the piano is right in front of you. You can see Jelly playing the keys.”
The stage for Jelly’s Last Jam is completely different than La Cage Aux Folles and will be completely different than Freaky Friday. “Nothing is set in [the MAX Theatre]” says Gardiner. “There are no rules about how it has to be. That’s what I love about the space, the ability to transform it into the story you are telling.”