Music to Hang On to Life By
At Zach, 'Side Man' dramatizes the power of jazz
The solo is a solid four minutes long. And while it spins out from a crappy little cassette recorder, circa 1960, all the characters on stage do is listen. They just sit there and listen for four minutes.
I can't think of many things more difficult to stage than people just listening to a piece of music, but in the case of Warren Leight's Side Man, as produced on the Kleberg Stage at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, those four minutes ought to be electric.
See, the characters in this scene are jazzmen, listening, for the first time, to a piece that trumpeter Clifford Brown played on the night that he died. For them, music is the thing they hang on to to keep from giving in to despair, to keep from being defeated by life. And they are hanging on to their music, jazz, at a time far removed from the big-band heyday of the 1930s and Forties, when instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington led bands that played swing, jazz, and bebop and were as popular as rock stars are today. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, when much of Side Man is set, the advent of television and the comparative ease of touring considerably smaller rock groups has sounded the death knell for their era. Listening to one of their own making great music in this twilight of an age ... well, the impact is visceral.
It's one of the most memorable scenes in Side Man, which received the Tony Award for Best Play in 1999 and won more than one award strictly for its writing. Its theme, like the greatest dramas of Odets, O'Neill, Williams, and Shepard, centers on the dissolution of the American family. Its main character, Clifford, narrates the play, in the tradition of Tom in Williams' incomparable The Glass Menagerie, and through Clifford's eyes we see his father Gene -- a side man who blows trumpet -- meet and fall in love with his mother, Terry, who wants to settle down and have a family, and naively believes that Gene is the man for the job. But like most jazz musicians, Gene is married to his music, and while he's always present in his home, he's mentally and emotionally absent from his family because of his music.
Dramatizing the pull of music on a human life is no easy task, but if there's a theatre in Austin fully equipped to address the challenge, it's Zach, primarily because of Artistic Director Dave Steakley. Steakley is well-known locally and nationally for his productions of contemporary musicals, and in shows such as Dreamgirls, The Gospel at Colonus, Avenue X, Tapestry: The Music of Carole King, Jouét, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he's shown an uncanny knack for portraying the impact that music can have on a life and the point where drama is best expressed through music. I can't think of anyone in Austin more qualified than Steakley to stage this play. Combine his talents with those of his production team, sound designer Allen Robertson (who, I'm told, uses not only existing period tracks but composes original ones as well), Michael Raiford (who bases his set on period album covers), and the smoky Jason Amato on lights, and with those of his cast, including local favorite Marco Perella (Adventures of a No-Name Actor) as Gene, Lisa Bansavage (Master Class), and Meredith McCall (The Pavilion), and Steakley's production of Side Man should be something to see -- and, just as importantly, to hear.
Side Man runs May 15-June 22 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, 1421 W. Riverside. Call 476-0541 x1 for info.