Director: Richard Stockton Rand
Produced by Ka-Tet Theatre
At City Lit Theatre, Chicago
“Side Man: a memory play. Part history. Part eulogy. A family, a world, a way of life that had disappeared. The journey of jazz musicians from their heyday to their exile.” – Richard Stockton Rand, director of Side Man
Fabulous acting and deft staging make Side Man of 2011’s best plays.
Over the last few years the folks at Ka-Tet Theatre have mounted terrific shows including Road by Jim Cartwright; Sun, Stand Still by Steven Grindley; and In The Jungle of Cities by Bertolt Brecht. Their attenuation to detail and fine ensemble acting have been impressive. Their latest show – the 1999 Tony Award winning for Best Drama – Side Man -may be their best work to date. Utilizing underscoring of smooth 40’s – 50’s recorded jazz music including outstanding trumpet horn-work and smartly stylish shadow images of New York and jazz men doing their thing, director Richard Stockton Rand and the creatives at Ka-Tet Theatre have mounted a hauntingly powerful drama that vividly depicts a long-lost way of life – the world of the purist jazz musician of America.
We meet the empathetic Dan Meisner, playing Clifford, the son of the quintessential Side Man ( defined – Side Men are generally required to be adaptable to many different styles of music, and so able to fit smoothly into the group in which they are currently playing). Gene is a purist jazz trumpeter who lives to “blow.” Gene (Jeremy Clark in a intensely riveting performance) is the most admired member of the local jazz men. Al (Scott Allen Luke), Jonesy (Rich Logan), and Ziggy (Jeffrey Gitelle) are the drug-addicted jazz musicians who travel the circuit as big band or session musicians. These dysfunctional characters are totally consumed by their jazz music lifestyle. Each can only function when playing jazz music.
Clifford narrates his family story that centers on his alcoholic and neurotic mother, Terry (fine work by Suzanne Miller) who becomes smitten by the stoic trumpeter Gene in the early 1950’s. Clifford’s memories vividly depict the bittersweet life that found Clifford assuming the role as functioning head of household beginning at age ten due to Terry drinking too much and Gene returning from his gigs almost comatose. Gene is trapped in his “twilight of a mediocre career” and he lives ONLY to blow his horn. Playwright Warren Leight hones into the seedy and bleak world of the purist musicians.
The risk of fame and fortune to the the purity of what makes Gene (and the others) exist only to play their music is effectively dramatized when the jazz-men sit around listening to a cassette tape of an admired, expert trumpet solo. The jazz man on the tape is dead, but his instrument remains feverishly alive, a fact confirmed in the ecstatic faces of Gene and his pals. Nothing more need be said as to why these musicians live to play.
Side Man is a hauntingly raw yet beautiful memory play that colorfully offers a glimpse into the world of the fanatic artist. It also dramatize the effects of shattered dreams and lack of ambition on a family. Dan Meismer and Jeremy Clark anchor the stellar cast of misfits and fanatics. The jazz riffs add authenticity to the production. This marvelous play is one of the best works mounted in Chicago this year! Ka-Tet Theatre is earning a reputation for outstanding productions. Side Man is an impressive work, don’t miss it.
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Date Reviewed: August 5, 2011
At City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago, IL