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Musician chooses art over loved ones in Metropolis' 'Side Man'
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Clifford (Ryan Hallahan, right) observes the courtship of his parents Gene (Steve O'Connell) and Terry (Michelle Weissgerber) in Warren Leight's "Side Man" running through April 18 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre.

 

Clifford (Ryan Hallahan, right) spends time with father Gene (Steve O'Connell, left) and his fellow horn players (Matt McNabb, David Vogel and Michael B. Woods, from left) in Metropolis' production of Warren Leight's memory play "Side Man."

 

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre set designer Dustin Efird evokes the shabby apartment and the smoky nightclub where the side men live their lives in the theater's revival of "Side Man."

 

The rundown apartment occupied by Gene (Steve O'Connell, right) and Terry (Michelle Weissgerber, center) becomes a haven for displaced jazzmen (played by David Vogel, Michael B. Woods and Matt McNabb, from left).

 

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Published: 3/19/2010 12:00 AM

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"Side Man"

★★★

Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 18, also 2 p.m. April 7

Running time: About two hours, with intermission

Tickets: $27-$43

Parking: Free lot adjacent to theater

Rating: For adults, includes strong language, references to drug and alcohol abuse

"Side Man" - Warren Leight's semi-autobiographical jazz era encomium about artistic obsession and family dysfunction - falls somewhere between an homage and an admonition.

A wry, sometimes touching examination of the encompassing passion a jazzman has for his music, "Side Man" - in a revival at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre - also addresses the toll his obsession takes on his needy wife and caretaker son. That would seem to place audience sympathies with the emotionally neglected wife and son.

But "Side Man" eschews that familiar strain to assign blame and inspire pity in equal measure.

What really elevates this provoking 1998 memory play beyond formulaic, however, is its refusal to condemn outright the titular character, a utility jazzman, who plays solos as skillfully as he plays backup, who advances or recedes not to satisfy his ego, but to satisfy the music. Detached, oblivious, but not malicious, Leight's side man, inspired by the playwright's father, is a man whose total immersion in music leaves no room for anything else.

Set in New York City, "Side Man" unfolds between 1953, as the sun set on the jazz era and rose on the dawn of rock 'n' roll, and 1985, when a son finally escapes his family. The relationship between trumpet player Gene (a nicely remote Steve O'Connell) and his great love, jazz, underscores the play. But the main drama involves Gene's relationship with his embittered, unstable, alcoholic wife Terry (Michelle Weissgerber, a whirlwind in a role written without subtlety) and their son Clifford (the terrific Ryan Hallahan, a newcomer with impressive chops and an actor to watch), who spent much of his tumultuous, poverty-stricken childhood parenting his parents.

The play opens on the eve of Cliff's departure to California, when he visits his estranged father and big band relic, playing one of his increasingly rare gigs at a timeworn lounge. From there, the action shifts from the present to the past as Clifford recounts the courtship, marriage and downward spiral of two people who would have been better off without him and each other.

Not only has director Lauren Rawitz deftly negotiated the play's shifting time frame, she's also assembled a likable cast whose camaraderie is apparent. That said, they're not yet a seasoned septet. The rhythm felt a bit off opening night, although I expect that will change the longer they play together. Even more significantly, in a pivotal scene where Gene and longtime pals and fellow horn players Al (David Vogel) and Ziggy (Matt McNabb) listen to a recording by the seminal bebop trumpeter Clifford Brown, the actors fail to reflect the transcendence one would expect from such devoted followers. That scene has to convey, without words, the all-consuming passion that inspires these men to devote themselves entirely to music, no matter the cost. As it plays now, it doesn't.

In fairness, some of the sour notes come courtesy of Leight himself. Several scenes feel contrived and a couple of characters need fleshing out, particularly Terry, a shrill, one-note character, which Weissgerber plays fortissimo. Yet one can't fault an actress for a lack of nuance when a playwright has failed to inject any into the character.

There are a couple of supporting performance worth noting, including Debbie DiVerde's warmhearted Patsy, an oft-married waitress who understands jazzmen and adjusts her expectations accordingly. Then there's Michael B. Woods' evocative, hollow-eyed performance as junkie horn player Jonesy, whose riff on career-changing arrest fully earns the spotlight.

Also earning kudos is set designer Dustin Efird, whose smokey nightclub and ramshackle apartment mark the latest in a series of impressive Metropolis sets.