“Jazz is life.” So says Jim Reiter, director of Colonial Players’ Side Man, billed as an elegy for a lost love and a lost world. Both jazz and life, he explains, are propulsive, rhythmic and sometimes distorted improvisations where we all riff on the expectations set before us.
Unfortunately, musicians can’t riff on life as easily as they can on a tune, which is the point of this autobiographical tragicomedy by Warren Leight (producer of TV’s Law and Order). Winner of the 1999 Tony Award winner for Best Play, this show about the decline of jazz and its effect on Leight’s dysfunctional family is a shot of heartbreak, heavy on nostalgia, with a chaser of resentment.
Clifford Glimmer (Jason Vellon) is the glue holding this show — and his family — together, narrating 30 years of recollections as a voyeur on his past. The sensitive white sheep of the family, he seems too sensible to be the offspring of Gene and Terry. For as he puts it, “the rocks in her head fit the holes in his.”
Gene (Timothy Sayles) is a brilliant but unambitious trumpeter destined for obscurity as a sideman to the greats. Playing backup to the likes of Dizzy and Sinatra, he improvises life by eking out weekend gigs to supplement his welfare checks. He means well but is more devoted to his art and fellow artists than to his family.
Terry (Mary McLeod) is the long-suffering wife to “that rat-bastard.” A naïve divorcée trapped in a neglected marriage, she finds comfort and tragic transformation in the bottle as Gene devotes himself to his music and his pals.
Al (Richard Koster) is a Romeo trumpeter. Ziggy (Richard Estberg) is a trumpeter with a repertoire of bad jokes and a speech impediment. Jonesy (Ben Carr) is a trombonist with a uniquely philosophic outlook and a calamitous heroin addiction. Because every band needs a groupie, there is Patsy (Ali Vellon), the vixen waitress and serial seductress.
As characters and as actors, they are a compelling bunch. Jason Vellon and McLeod are tearjerkers, sharing some of the tenderest moments when she is at her most hysterical.
Likewise, Carr knows just how to coax the most pathos from his pitiful junkie without crossing the line to disdain. Sayles’ character is maddeningly oblivious to just how maddening he can be. Koster and Estberg are attentive to the details that convey musicianship, such as blasting a few notes on an instrument or listening with keen appreciation to an extended musical passage shared with the audience. Ali Vellon shows impressive range, swinging from seductress with the band to mother figure opposite her real life husband, Jason.
Most of the cast, however, is skewed older than is convincing for a play that spans three decades.
My main quibble is with the playwright for dispensing with two major plot points effortlessly. The resulting denouement feels a bit like the end of a windup toy’s run.
The design team deserves kudos for the split set — half living room and half lounge — that is just shabby and smoky and greasy enough to feel real and raw with authentic touches like metal TV trays. Simulated television broadcasts with pulsing spotlights to illuminate the small screen evoke a familiar hominess.
If you love jazz, you will love this play. If you don’t love jazz, you will still find this a moving and meaningful show, if a bit long in places.
Adult language, drug references and mature themes. Two hours with intermission.
Director: Jim Reiter. Stage manager: Herb Elkin. Set designer: Carol Youmans. Sound: Sarah Wade and Reiter (music). Lights: Eric Lund. Costumes: Fran Marchand and Paige Myers.
Thru Oct. 31. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 7:30pm Su Oct. 25, Colonial Players, 108 East. St., Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: thecolonialplayers.org.