“If it gets sticky, let it stick with you,” he raps in a rhyme-buoyed introduction to this filmed autobiographical show, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and streaming on Marquee TV as one of Signature Theatre’s 2021 offerings.
Funny, intense, vivid moments from “The Jam: Only Child” do stick with you: Watts’s memory of acting out William Goldman’s book-turned-movie “The Princess Bride” during his afternoons alone as a latchkey kid. (Remembering onstage, he fences with an invisible poker.) His recollection of his unflappable mother using table salt to extinguish a raging fire he’d set while playing with a lighter and rubber cement. (His oscillating arms mirror the flames, to a disco beat.) The day he stole away from a high school wrestling match to dance with his tap troupe. (He channels his furious coach.)
Known especially for his Tony-nominated performance as Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and for the role of Henry on Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Watts exhibits writerly flair here, turning scenes from his life — including his time in therapy — into an artful meditation on loneliness, integrity, justice and inner clarity. Meanwhile, his performer’s gifts — charisma, interpretive verve, spot-on comic and dramatic timing, exuberant physicality — make the profundity engaging.
The film’s production values and Adam Honoré’s concert-style lighting help. Positioned onstage throughout, sound designer DJ Duggz supplies music and sound effects while bantering with Watts and occasionally channeling voices from the story. Spry but never distracting camera shifts supply additional liveliness and nuance.
In a part of the story reflecting on loss and vulnerability, Watts executes a moody tap dance, sometimes deliberately almost losing his balance. The camera dwells on the butterflies on his socks — a symbol of transformation mentioned elsewhere in the piece. (Seen in New York in early 2020 at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, “The Jam: Only Child” is the fifth installment in Watts’s performance series “The Jam.”)
He gets even more mileage from another analogy: a comparison of the human mind to a junk-filled attic that a therapist can help sort through. Watts brings welcome humor to the metaphor, as he mimes picking his way nervously through the clutter with a flashlight, recognizing unloved doodads and forgotten heirlooms. There must be some great jam-making equipment there, too.
“Daniel J. Watts’ The Jam: Only Child,” written and performed by Watts. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz; assistant director, Rickey Tripp; production coordinator, Kerry Epstein; filmed by Chiet Productions; director of photography, Justin Chiet. About 90 minutes. Streaming through May 7 on Marquee TV. Tickets: $35. SigTheatre.org.