"Night after night, they were just burning brass, oblivious.…" Playwright Warren Leight's respect for jazzmen runs deep. Not only can he rhapsodize on the bright years of the Big Band heyday and the unknown talents who brought it to life, recreating their singsong banter with flair, but he can also write movingly about exactly what this dream cost those who couldn't help but dream it. Side Man is an eminently loveable play, filled with characters who dash off one-liners like they're going out of style, and the cast of this L.A. debut creates a spirited, touching production perfectly suited to the nostalgic ambience of the Pasadena Playhouse. Director Andrew J. Robinson artfully balances the play's contrasting tones, matching all of its sweet humor with larger points on the suffering and complexity of the family universe.
JD Cullum is our narrator, Clifford, a kind of Leight stand-in, who recounts his parents' dark tale. It's a tricky role. Play it too sweet, and Clifford's constant winks at the audience become nauseatingly cute. Play it too bitter, and the play's somber undertow drags the whole show into tragedy. Cullum strikes the perfect tone of earnestness mixed with stinging wit, while subtly indicating dramatic shifts in age, as the play traverses a 30-year span over which Big Band meets its end at the hands of TV and rock 'n' roll. On the eve of returning home to meet with his parents—separated now, for good reasons—Clifford tells their story from the day they first met.
Dennis Christopher plays Clifford's father, the brilliant jazz trumpeter Gene, whose love for music seems to blind him to all earthly concerns, including the needs of his wife and child. Christopher meets the challenge of making Gene's oblivion both convincing and somehow excusable. Though inadvertently cruel, he is nevertheless humble, marching only to the beat of his own passion—jazz.
Yet it is Mare Winningham's role that allows her to show what good acting is made of. As Clifford's mother, Terry, Winningham beautifully arcs her crass character from her laughably innocent days—where she marvels at how "economical" these jazzmen are for rolling their own "cigarettes" and passing them around to share—right up to the rough, resentful, wounded person she becomes. Their "family rituals," as Clifford calls them, come to include plenty of alcohol, four-letter words, and living room objects turned into projectiles. Clifford, age 10, bakes ziti and cleans.
Outside this troubled home, the play's humor takes off, managed skillfully by a tight supporting ensemble who give the appearance of having lived in these roles for years. Hunched over bowls of cold soup—so as not to damage their "chops"—these sidemen bicker and talk shop. We have Ziggy with his awkward speech impediment, played by the perfectly quirky Ethan Phillips; the heroin addict Jonesy, played as wonderfully strung out yet docile by Daniel Reichert; the maritally challenged Al, played as sweetly pathetic by Gareth Williams, and their flirtatious waitress Patsy, played as hilariously jaded by Lee Garlington.
John Iacovelli's layered scenic design is breathtaking, juxtaposing the couple's humble home with the red club booth that becomes everyone's home away from home. Backlighting projects the jazzmen's haunting shadows onto an upstage scrim as they take to the stage to court their only love. Lit-up club signs hang high above—from jazz institutions like the Paramount, Birdland, Leon & Eddies, and Jimmy Ryan's—evoking the bright glimmer of swinging days now long gone.
"Side Man," presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 9 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. May 13-June 17. $15-42.50. (626) 356-7529.