REVIEW: Side Man (Metropolis Performing Arts Centre)

Haunting "Side Man" plays ‘Taps’ over jazz heyday

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Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents

 

Side Man
 
By Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz
Metropolis Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
Through April 18 (more info)
 
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Poignant and darkly comic, Warren Leight’s Side Man, deftly bridges the parallels between the downward spiraling personal life of a jazz musician and the diminishing popularity of his genre. Lauren Rawitz’s enthralling production for Metropolis Performing Arts Centre brings the colorful characters of the big band era to vivid life.

SideMan6The autobiographical story, inspired by the life of the playwright’s father, jazz trumpeter Donald Leight, covers 1953 to 1985. Clifford, the narrator, recounts the incidents in his parents’ lives, sliding backwards and forward in time through their tumultuous relationship and declining fortunes.

In jazz parlance, a side man is a freelance musician. Able to solo, play backup parts and blend in with a band as needed, side men play with various groups, taking gigs with whomever needs an extra player. Although often talented and hailed by other musicians, they rarely achieve the public acclaim or income given to the star bandleaders and their regular players.

Even during the heyday of the big bands, it was an unstable life. With the rise of rock ’n’ roll, jazz side men moved from busy professionals to peripatetic performers who struggled to work 20 weeks a year so they could collect unemployment the rest of the time — "jazzonomics" as Clifford calls it. In a moment of foresight, one player, Jonesy, reacts to the appearance of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show: "That kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton."

SideMan5 Side man "Clean" Gene, a trumpeter, lives for his horn. He played with Frank Sinatra and many of the big names of the 1940s and ’50s. When he plays, he’s totally aware of his environment, timed to an instant; offstage, he has to write down everything or he forgets it. He steers clear of the habits that sideline other musicians, the drugs that derail his trombonist pal Jonesy and the womanizing that absorbs his friend Al, another trumpeter. But when "Crazy Terry" throws herself at him, he allows himself to be drawn first into housekeeping with her, and then, when she becomes pregnant, a marriage for which he is ill-equipped.

At first, Gene and Terry seem a good match: "The rocks in her head fit the holes in his," as another trumpeter, Ziggy, puts it. Foul-mouthed but essentially naive, Terry starts out unaware of the realities of Gene’s syncopated life. The talented but unworldly side man remains unambitious, lost in his music, his wife and son rarely foremost in his mind. As the play goes on, she comes to deeply resent this, dropping into a raging depression and alcoholism that he scarcely notices. Young Clifford is forced to parent his parents.

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Beautifully executed, the Metropolis production shines with a neon-lit set by Dustin Efrid and outstanding performances. Ryan Hallahan is a wry Clifford, recounting his haphazard upbringing without self-pity. Michelle Weissgerber plays his mother, ably seguing between the dizzy young Terry and the bitter old woman she becomes. Steve O’Connell’s Gene drifts amiably and bewilderedly through the show, rarely alive except in his music.

Their performances are matched by a talented supporting cast, with the vivacious Debbie DiVerde as Patsy, a round-heeled, jazz groupie waitress; Matt McNabbin a solid performance as the lisping Ziggy; David Vogel as Al, the Romeo of trumpeters; and Michael B. Woods, last seen in Metropolis’ Out of Order (our review ★★★★), in another stellar performance as Jonesy, the junkie trombone player who wavers from urbane sensitivity to crude humor. Jonesy, despite — or perhaps because of — his addiction, seems the one character really in tune with his world. When Terry wonders if Gene will ever "make it" at as a jazz musician, Jonesy, gesturing at the gritty jazz club around them, replies, "Honey, he’s made it. This is it."

Winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, Side Man ran more than 500 performances on Broadway. Despite its fraught dysfunctional-family scenes and paeans to a vanished world, this is an essentially good-hearted play, never maudlin or sentimental, but full of offhand humor. You need not be a jazz fan to relate to it.

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Little actual music features in this bittersweet play about musicians, though one moving scene, in Act II, sums up the jazzmen’s lives. Gene, Ziggy and Al have — to their disgust — been reduced to playing with Lester Lanin’s orchestra, a society band whose audiences "couldn’t’ swing if you hung them." As they’re packing up after their performance, Al brings out a rare recording, the final trumpet solo of the great Clifford Brown, for whom Clifford was named, and the three stop everything to listen, rapt, to the soulful notes.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★

Side Man contains adult language and themes. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre is two blocks from the Arlington Heights Metra station and free parking is available in the municipal garage behind the theater. Google map of location here.

 

 

            

Review: "The Sparrow" at House Theatre

The_Sparrow1-small Only in the world of Chicago theatre can you find such an exciting artistic organization like The House Theatre. Now in its fourth season, The House has energized the city’s theatre audience, creating a huge following of 20-somethings that might not have otherwise gone to theatre. The company never fails to push the theatrical envelope through the combination of artistry, multi-media, and aggressive and ingenious fun – which explains their reward of consistently sold-out performances.

There are two definitive reasons for the success of The House. First of all, they only present new works that are written through a collaboration of members of the company and the actors of the play itself, and it is evident that this creative style empowers the actors and production team so that each member completely engrosses themselves into each production, sweeping the audience with them. Secondly, and most important, the fare that the company creates for their loyal audience is consistently an artistically exuberant experience. It combines engaging video and original music along with pure athleticism and inspiring energy, leaving one’s senses pleasantly exhausted by the end of each show.

In regards to these two points, House Theatre’s newest work, The Sparrow, does not disappoint. The play follows Emily Book (imagine a combination of Stephen King’s Carrie and Wicked’s Elpheba), who has the unexplained power of flight (among other things), earning her the nickname of “Sparrow”. Emily Bock (believably played by Carolyn Defrin), was the lone survivor of a school bus crash in the town of Spring Farms, IL, when she was four, after which she was quickly whisked away to a Catholic boarding school. Now, at age 17, she has come back to Spring Farms, where she has been taken in by Joyce (Evie Sullivan) and Albert (Jonathan Simpson) McGuckin, whose daughter had been killed in the same bus accident. At Emily’s new school, her school counselor, Dan Christopher (charmingly played by Cliff Chamberlain), takes Emily under his wing, introducing her to all of the students, including the school’s class president and cheerleading captain, Jenny McGrath (an enthusiastic Paige Hoffman). Emily’s powers are discovered at a basketball game, when Jenny, during a cheerleading stunt, ends up precariously hanging from a banner high above the gym. Emily flies up and saves her. Through some surprising turn of events surrounding a school dance, the overall arc of The Sparrow is completed, and the play comes to a jarring but satisfying end (fyi: the show will no doubt be the first in a series).

SpringFarm1-smallThe director (the highly-gifted Nathan Allen) and artistic team have come up with some brilliant scene changes and interludes, including a performance in the bio-chemistry lab by the teacher and a host of singing dissected pigs, (singing and big-band-dancing to a Frank Sinatra tune), and a basketball game that is infused with some fun, acrobatic cheerleading and MTV-influenced dancing.

Special kudos must be made to the music and sound design teams: Kevin O’Donnell, Mike Przygoda, Jeremiah Chiu, Michael Griggs and Phil Canzo. Kevin O’Donnell has composed a remarkable score for this play. The music in this work plays a huge role in the telling of the story, and Mr. O’Donnell will no doubt go far in the field.

The Sparrow - pulling the bullet out of teacher's chest There are a few weaknesses in the show, mostly surrounding some missing storyline and the development of the character of cheerleader Jenny McGrath. Although The Sparrow takes place in a make-believe world, there still needs to be some believability in what motivates the characters, and in Jenny’s there is no fore-shadowing to explain the events of the second act.

Nonetheless, if you have not been to a production at The House, you should make plans to sit among the audience as soon as you can. You will have to venture westward-ho of the main theatre districts, but the short jaunt to Belmont and Western is well worth it.

Rating: ★★★½