Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Side Man"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark

"Side Man"

by Warren Leight
Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Scenic Design by Janie F. Howland
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Lighting Design by John Malinowski
Sound design by Ben Arons
Assistant Director Paula Ramsdell
Stage Manager Laurie A. Light

Clifford...............Ro'ee Levi
Terry...................Paula Plum
Patsy............Valerie Madden
Gene....................Dale Place
Al...................Derek Stearns
Ziggy..............Neil A. Casey
Jonesy...........Phillip Patrone

"I began to wonder why my father --- who would incorporate an auto horn outside the club into his trumpet solo --- could be so totally aware of everything while he was playing, and totally oblivious to everything when he wasn't." That's the narrator of Warren Leight's biography play "Side Man" explaining in a nutshell what makes his dad so loveable and so impossible to live with. The first act here is mostly bittersweet happy memories, the second sweetbitter sad ones that chronicle the twilight years of big-band jazz and its corrosive effect on the family of an artist/workman whom time is passing by.

Dale Place plays Gene, an all-purpose (solos, section-work, accompanying) side man ready for any kind of work in any band from Claude Thornhill's to Lester Lannin's, any combo or brass section, on the road or in The Apple, carefully working twenty weeks so he can then meet the fellow members of his brass section in the unemployment lines. Paula Plum plays his wife Terry, who waitresses at The Melody Lounge drinking herself into violent rages because "he never once took me out to dinner in the fifteen years we been married!" And between these two, playing bewildered parent, is young Clifford (Ro'ee Levi) whose birth occasioned the marriage and tied these two unhappily together. "Why was I born?" Clifford asks at one point, to which his father replies "We're doing it as the second tune in the next set." Is it any wonder the play closes with a soft trumpet-solo on a tune called "It Never Entered My Mind"?

Plum plays a shrill ex-Bostonian catholic complimenting the guys on rolling their own cigarettes and wounded when her husband plays all night rather than dance with her on their wedding night. The slow slide from good times to bad when, after watching Elvis' first appearance on Ed Sullivan one of the guys asks "Any of you know how to play the guitar?" As she begins to feel trapped, the subtext of her raucous complaints is that her marriage, and Clifford, were mistakes. Place, on the other hand, is as oblivious to her attacks as a pillow, constantly misjudging the shrinking opportunities for work and indifferent to poverty because, of course, when he steps offstage it is to come alive with his horn. They are a mismatched Punch & Judy whose funny banter subsides into mere violence in one, indifference in the other.

The other guys in the section are played by Derek Stearns, Neil A. Casey and Phillip Patrone --- And Valerie Madden plays Patsy, a Melody waitress always marrying and breaking up with trumpeters. They are, in a sense, side men to the principals here, sharing all the inside jokes and passing the joints around, handing on furniture and trying to scrape together bail money when necessary --- and helping out whenever, rarely, possible. Patrone isn't a trumpeter but a trombonist, clear-headed even when high on horse ("Jonesey isn't a junkie, exactly. He's just addicted."), but this is a solidly nuanced group effort where everyone works, with lines or without.

The play flits expertly around in time, and John Malinowski's quick lights move the action around a Janie F. Howland set that is naturalistic in places, eloquently abstract in others. As narrator, Ro'ee Levi is almost always onstage, talking directly to the audience like a new acquaintance, explaining, commenting, participating, criticizing the parents he loves but cannot connect with. He is the skewer through this delightfully directed shishekbab which is peppered with Ben Arons' carefully adapted jazz interpolations.

This is a magnificent show everyone should see.

And I say that knowing it is special to me personally. When I first began buying records of my own, although my contemporaries were discovering Elvis, Little Richard and The Stones, I was discovering Bix (who died a year before I was born), Dizzy and The MJQ. I never saw much in electric guitars except for those of Charlie Parker and Stuff Smith. I listened to every note of the '38 Carnegie Hall concert thousands of times. And so I thank Spiro and The Lyric crew --- and Bear Stearns, ING Barings, and Lazard Freres, the companies that paid for it --- for allowing me briefly to live with these boys of summer, even in their ruin. Blow a chorus for me, gang.....


"Side Man" (till 15 October)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON
1(617) 437-7172

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide