Horn of Plenty
Like a silky musical riff that beckons with the promise of discovery, Side Man pays homage to a bygone artistry that championed purity of devotion over shameless self-promotion. Centered around four jazz musicians, Warren Leight's memory play abounds with soulful passages in which a young man tugs at the dark shroud of his family's past while shining a spotlight on his father's love for an ever-elusive muse.
Brimming with dialogue that's at once subtle and blunt, humorous and affecting, the 1999 Tony award-winner for best play is being presented at the Stage Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company. As performed against a backdrop of art deco-ish skyscrapers and a mezzo-tinted image of big-band jammers in the throes of ecstasy (the setting was designed by Vicki Smith), the 130-minute effort works its charms in comfortably circuitous fashion. While director Randal Myler's gratifying production touches on themes of artistic greatness both denied and deferred, it more frequently evokes feelings of familial loss, disillusionment and reconciliation.
Bathed in a neon patina and accompanied by jazzy strains, a fresh-faced narrator named Clifford starts things off by introducing the audience to the various characters and their seedy haunts: namely, several New York City nightclubs and a drab, cramped Upper West Side apartment that his family calls home. Shortly after introducing us to his parents, three of his father's musician friends and a coffee-shop waitress who has a harmless habit of bedding down with one jazz man after another, Clifford turns to the audience and quips, "These are my role models, my authority figures." As the play progresses, the men and women converse with the narrator and re-enact events that fueled their camaraderie and shaped their professional lives.
Some of the scenes reach as far back as 1953, when the four sidemen -- a term that refers to a big-band musician who's equally at home playing solo, backing a vocalist or fading into multiple-part harmony -- took only enough "legit" gigs to qualify for unemployment benefits, which they treat as merit awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. Later episodes stretch forward to 1985, when the quartet is reduced to taking the occasional lounge gig and battling over the supply of saltines while dining on bowls of soup after cashing their weekly "grant" checks from the state of New York. Along the way, we witness Clifford's home life slowly deteriorate as his mother spirals into alcoholic paranoia and his gentle father, who does little to mitigate her suffering, practices priestly dedication to his art. And we watch in dismay as the rise of rock and roll gradually relegates these great-hearted bohemians to the twilight-years task of reminiscing about their triumphs and defeats.
With rare exceptions, the splendid cast proves capable of stepping in and out of vignettes that blend fond reflection with bitter sentiment. Jeanne Paulsen's seething portrayal of Clifford's mother, Terry, contrasts sharply with her previous DCTC efforts, which have included a vibrant Irishwoman on a mission (Molly Sweeney) and a grating, do-gooding daughter (Taking Leave). As Terry, she's dangerously pathetic when bellowing obscenities with longshoreman-like fortitude or wielding a liquor bottle with murderous menace. But Paulsen also earns our affection, however guarded, each time she turns to her husband and son for their undying, if imperfect, love. And midway through Act Two, Paulsen wonderfully embodies the raging mental storm that causes Terry to howl with frightening despair.
Jamie Horton endows the role of Terry's husband, Gene, with calculated detachment. There's always something occupying his thoughts that's far removed from the task at hand; at times, it seems as though he's unwilling -- and unable -- to stop the free flow of impulses that, given a proper combination of time and place, take musical flight when he becomes one with his beloved horn. As Gene's trio of likable sidekicks, a trio of DCTC company members play against type without lapsing into hokey mannerisms or speech patterns. John Hutton veers and slides through the part of Jonesy, a trombone-playing heroin addict who faces each moment, and each fix, with cooler-than-hep fluidity; his delivery of a monologue describing Jonesy's run-in with the police is one of the show's more heartrending scenes. Randy Moore is right on the money as Al, an easygoing, feel-copping sort who's sometimes too sentimental and romantic for his own good. And Mark Rubald's portrait of the lisping Ziggy is thoroughly believable, especially when he listens in admiring disbelief to a knockout recording of legendary horn player Clifford Brown. Lynnda Ferguson charms as the tough-yet-tender waitress, Patsy. And while his portrait of Clifford lacks the sort of wonderment and feeling that arises when one reflects on what might have been -- or, in the case of Clifford's gifted father, should have been -- Christopher Collett's take on the role is serviceable.
These versatile craftsmen are not losers or victims or prototypes of dysfunctionality. Though they choose to walk a few paces behind life's headline-grabbers, the world's unsung poets possess a love for their calling that's more sublime than the type of personality quirks that earn many pretenders lifetime memberships in celebrity's fern bar. Their story may invite you in or leave you lingering on its emotional perimeter. Either way, Myler and company's creation, as one character says of Gene's ability to trumpet a ballad, will likely break your heart.
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