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A CurtainUp Review
Side Man

Second Thoughts on the Broadway Production by Les Gutman

Sideman in its Third Home by Elyse Sommer

The usually dark and somber CSC theater has been completely reconfigured for Warren Leight's moving stage memoir of a '40s jazz musician. The side seating sections have been removed to accommodate the restaurant, bar and house where the lives of the title character and his family and friends play out for us.

Fluidly directed by Michael Mayer, evocatively designed by Neil Patel, and graced with a splendid cast, this personalized slice of musical history has all the earmarks of a small show that might well exceed its current limited run. Just in case it doesn't, however, grab a ticket and catch it while it's on.

A side man, in case you never heard the expression, was a type of journeyman musician who in the 1940s the heyday of the big bands, played backup to the "star" bandleaders. When those stars could no longer provide steady employment, the side men who did not move on to more mundane careers, kept their instruments packed ready to do a gig wherever an extra player was needed.

Leight's serio-comic drama centers on the odyssey of Gene (Frank Wood) through the twilight years of the big bands. Mr. Wood subtly portrays a man who, except for the passion for jazz that rules (and ruins) his family life, is an out-to-lunch cipher. As narrated with wry humor and affection by an involved by-stander, Gene's son Clifford, (Robert Sella) we watch the assembling of a collage that pieces together Gene's musical and marital history from 1953 to 1985.

Also pieced into the canvas are vivid portraits of Gene's Runyonesque cronies, all erstwhile horn players in the legendary Claude Thornhill band. As their life style disappears like the smoke from their reefers, they survive only through periodic gigs on the unemployment line (which also inspires some of the most amusing bits of business, as the lesson in "jazzenomics" accompanying a lunch to celebrate Cliff's initiation into the rites of "collecting").

Making up the Melody Club round table are: Michael Mastro last heard but not seen as the invisible "side man" calling out the cues to Christopher Plummer's alcohol-dazed John Barrymore. ( Barrymore ) is terrific as the fast-on-the-verbal drawer Ziggie; Joseph Lyle Taylor's Al is a convincingly bare of hair and finnesse womanizer and Kevin Geer is achingly funny as the heroin adicted Jonesy.

But dominating the jokey camaraderie is the musical passion that binds these men together. It's best illustrated in a scene when Gene and Ziggie and Al are dressed in powder blue tuxedos and on a break during a gig with the Lester Lanin society band which plays for people who "couldn't' swing if you hung them." Ziggy has found a rare tape by one of their musical heroes and as they listen with rapt expressions, fingering their own trumpets, we become privvy to passion as powerful as that in any "regular"" love scene. (Those wonderful few minutes are also a musical treat).

The only women in this first-rate lineup are Angelica Torn and Eddie Falco. Torn is Patsy the appropriately tough waitress with a heart and libido big enough to at one time or another bed down all the musicians. Falco, makes a most impressive debut as Gene's wife Terry. Through Cliff's eyes we see her when she still orders water and doesn't know a Phillip Morris cigarette from a reefer and follow the romance fired up by the prospect of meeting Frank Sinatra (with whom Gene has played) deteriorate into a marriage soured by his obssession and her self-destructive alcoholism. Even when her behavior is most outrageous, she holds on to our sympathy, as she does to Cliff's with her tough humor and the cracks in her "crazy Terry" veneer -- as when she refuses to hear Gene play at the Melody but sends him a Lasagna because she knows he often forgets to eat..

It's a hauntingly, blues-y tale full of characters who will stay in our hearts and minds for a long time.

By Warren Leight
Directed by Michael Mayer
With Edie Falco, Kevin Geer, Michael Mastro, Dan Moran, Robert Sella, Angelica Torn and Frank Wood.
Sets: Neil Patel
Costumes: Tom Broecker
Lighting: Ken Posner
Sound: Ray Schilke.
CSC Theatre, 136 E. 13th St. (212/ 279-4200)
3/03/98-3/29/98; opening 3/11/98
Reviewed 3/12/98 by Elyse Sommer

Second Thoughts on the Broadway Production by Les Gutman

This is the second Roundabout Theatre production about which I've written "Second Thoughts" for CurtainUp. (The other was A View From the Bridge, linked below). Both were "transfers" -- this one from a modest off-Broadway run at CSC -- and both were directed by Michael Mayer. Both also seem more deserving of Broadway recognition than most of the contemporaneous shows pre-ordained for their berths there.

Side Man is a memory play; it is a domestic drama; and it is a play about, as Elyse Sommer described it in her initial review, linked below, "a slice of musical history". None of these are particularly unusual. It is the way these elements are synthesized in Side Man that is extraordinary. 

After a year in which the "return of Broadway" has been much trumpeted, it is nice to see that that return can include new plays that are Broadway-worthy simply because they are good. It's worth noting what this play lacks: its playwright, Warren Leight is not a brand name (see CurtainUp's interview with Leight, linked below); the cast includes no one who could claim to be a "star," much less a "draw." What is has, as noted in Elyse's review was "all the earmarks of a small show that might well exceed its current limited run."

In its Broadway digs, Side Man has been able to stretch out a bit, but otherwise appears to have retained its off-Broadway feel. Since time and space move about randomly in this play, Neil Patel's three-part set must remain stationary. It can do so at the Roundabout without sacrificing seats as was the case at CSC. It also retains its slightly rough, hand-me-down feel.

The cast continues from the original production, except for the substitution of Wendy Makkena for Edie Falco in the important role of wife and mother, Terry. If anything is lost in the translation, I can't imagine what it would be. Makkena is comfortable and perfect, a description that applies with equal force to the returnees.

When a show is this good, I'm prompted to ask what distinguishes it. For one thing, there is the dexterous hand of Michael Mayer (who has been involved in this show since its early workshops) guiding; he keeps the storytelling in sharp focus. For another, there are the wholly convincing performances, rendered with attentive and obvious joy, and no weak links. But in the final analysis, it is the integrity of Warren Leight's semi-autobiographical story that sets this play apart. There is a melding of objectivity with the personal: the love is as palpable as the inconsistencies it generates.
There is an appealing enigma. Side Man is somehow reassuring even though it is certainly not uplifting. Perhaps, oddly, this is the key.

Side Man finds itself uptown now, but not forever. It's set to run through September 20. Let me reiterate Elyse's earlier advice: "grab a ticket and catch it while it's on."

By Warren Leight 
Directed by Michael Mayer 
With Kevin Geer, Wendy Makkena, Michael Mastro, Robert Sella, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Angelica Torn and Frank Wood 
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Tom Broecker
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Raymond D. Schilke
Roundabout Stage Right, 1530 Broadway (@45th) (212) 719 - 1300 
Website linked below 
reopened (on Broadway) June 25 closes September 20, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 4/29/98
August 10, 1998: After losing a week of shows due to the Times Square accident that closed this and several other theaters, the show's run has been extended to 9/13/98
And the show goes on, moving to the Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. (212/239-6200) for an open run

Sideman in its Third Home by Elyse Sommer

Sideman' is proving itself as the exception to the rule that new plays can't have healthy and lengthy lives in the mainstream of New York theater. It moved from it's brief Off-Broadway run at the tiny CSC to the Roundabout. Though well received, the subscription season allowed only a limited extension. Continuing on its lucky streak, however, the show has found another home, the intimately sized Golden (252 W. 45th St.) where it officially re-opened on Sunday, November 8th. With the exception of Robert Sella, who's emceeing at Cabaret until Allan Cumming returns, the cast is intact, as are the design elements. To replace Sella, there's Christian Slater whose familiarity to movie goers should draw in enough people to get the show off to a healthy third life.

The show's move to the Golden gave me a chance to see it after an eight-months interim and with two new to me actors -- Slater as Clifford, the narrator, and Wendy Makkena in the role of his mother. I'm not going to re-review it since everything I said in my initial review remains true, as do Les Gutman's comments on the Roundabout production. (see links). Mr. Slater, like Mr. Sella, plays Clifford the narrator with warmth and restraint. Ms. Makkena gives as rich a reading to the difficult role of Terry as her predecessor did. The five musicians and Angelica Torn remain a terrific ensemble. I suspect that even if some of them had to leave for other commitments, the play's basic strength and wonderfully balanced humor and pathos, would carry the day.

This re-visit to a play I loved when I first saw it, not only gave me a chance to see the effect of the two new-to-me actors on the productions but to make note to any shifts in emphasis from last season to now -- the kind of role and script honing that give live theater its excitement.

Some changes which have been wrought seem designed to build up Side Man's comic elements. When at one point Terry (Ms. Makkena) interrupts Clifford as he's addressing the audience with "who are you talking to?" it breaks the flow of the narration device. True, it also got a big laugh, so you can see how this may have grown from an improvisational bit to a decision to take it to its new Broadway home.

The play's most memorable scene -- when three of the musicians listen to a tape of the late great trumpeter Clifford Brown (for whom Clifford the narrator is named) -- loses some of its power by the insertion of some prompts from Al (Joseph Lyle Taylor). This delays but does not strengthen the stunning moment when Gene (Frank Wood) loses himself completely in the sound of the trumpet. That's not to say that it's not still a memorable high point of a memorable and filled with high points play. It's simply an unnecessary bit of tinkering with a scene that was perfect to begin with. Perhaps, as the play settles into its new home, these concessions to Broadway audience expectations will be dropped for this is after all live theater and not a movie that's frozen once it's in the can..

All things considered, Side Man remains what it was: an extraordinarily moving slice of a particular way of life and a particular group of flesh and blood people. I urge all of you who haven't yet seen this play to do so. I would also add that because nothing can ever take the place of that thrill of discovering a play before it's gotten the official stamp of approval, don't forget to dip your toes into the untested waters of new and unknown Off and Off-Off-Broadway productions. This kind of adventurous theater going may just lead to the additional thrill of seeing your discovery play to a packed and enthusiastic new audience -- very much the case when I saw Side Man at the Golden.

©Copyright Elyse Sommer.
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