Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family

Last night, we went to Rep East Playhouse to see the last show in the 81 series: “Sideman”, by Warren Leight. This wasn’t our first time seeing the play: we saw the 2001 production at the Pasadena Playhouse, but that was almost a decade ago and the memory fades.

A “side man”, according to Wikipedia, is a professional musician who is hired to perform or record with a group of which he or she is not a regular member. They often tour with solo acts as well as bands and jazz ensembles. Sidemen 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. Often aspiring musicians start out as sidemen, and then move on to develop their own sound, a name, and fans of their own, or go on to form their own groups.

The play “Side Man” tells the story of one such man: Gene Glimmer, a trumpet player. It is told from the point of view, and narrated by, his son, Clifford. It is centered around the time that Clifford is about to leave his family and move west in 1985, prompting a goodbye visit to his mother and a meeting with his father, who is estranged from the family. Through a series of flashbacks we learn the story of Clifford’s life: how Gene met and wooed his wife, Terry; the relationship with the other sidemen in Gene’s life (Al, Ziggy, and Jonesy); the role of the Melody Lounge and its waitress, Patsy. We see how the relationship between Gene and Terry was tolerable in the beginning, but began to slide downhill with the birth of Clifford. We also see how the death of the big band era and the growth of rock and roll meant the end of the way of life for the big band sidemen: journeymen horns found little work as the touring big bands dried up, the regional and house big bands disappeared, and the musical style changed. We saw the effect of this on the family: Gene being oblivious to anything but the music, and Terry sinking deeper and deeper into the bottle.

The story itself is an ultimately moving one, and could be said to be focused on the notion of the toll that obsession takes on a person and those around him. In this play, the primary obsession is Gene’s: at the center of everything is the music—it is the god that is worship, and the god to whom homage must be paid and sacrifices made. Financial and relationship success are meaningless: art is everything. Terry is less obsessed with the music: she is obsessed with the musician, and over time that obsession is replaced with hatred for him, hatred for herself, and an obsession with the booze. Clifford, the narrator, has his obsession too: he’s obsessed with pleasing people: trying to make peace whatever the cost—a classic enabler. I know what Clifford went through: my mother was like Terry—although brilliant, obsessed with the bottle at times and prone to the violent outbursts at those she loved. The play tells the story of these obsessions well. If it has a problem, it is in the structure: at times the all-known narration diffuses the tension, in the same way that a family member of an alcoholic attempts to joke to diffuse the tension in the house. The narration also treats the audience as a character, and is occasionally noticed by the characters in the play (“Who are you talking to, Clifford?”), creating an odd and jarring juxtaposition.

The play, as with all plays at the REP, was very well acted. Clifford (Reid Gormly) did a believable job as the narrator. In this play, the real test of Clifford is when he is called upon to play a younger version of himself (this was noted as a problem in the 2001 Pasadena production). The trick is to channel the inner 10-year old while still being an adult narrator. It is difficult to do, and was only partially successful here. That’s about the only area that could use improvement in an otherwise spot-on performance.

As Gene, David Heymannæ captured the man addicted to the music well. You could see him zoning out on a hot riff, riding the music. It is, in a sense, a form of aspergers: the social skill to read people is replaced with the musical talent. Heymann captured this well, and was a delight to watch.

Terry, Clifford’s mom, was played supurbly by Chera Holland. She captured the drunk, abusive mother so perfectly I was reminded of how my mom was at times. You could see her love of the man, not the music. You could also see how she wasn’t the material type: she lumped her son together with the father: he was something put in her life to take care of her, not for her to take care of. Well played, well acted.

Rounding out the cast were the other sidemen and denizens of the Melody Lounge. The other sidemen were Ziggy (Richard Van Slykeæ), Al (Michael Hanna), and Jonesy (Gabriel Kalomasæ). All were quite good (although I kept thinking that REP regular Johnny Schwinn would have been great in the Jonesy role, had he been in town). As Patsy, April Audiaæ, did a wonderful and believable job as the all knowing waitress and wife/lover to numerous sidemen.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production was directed by Mark F. Kaplan, who did a supurb job of pulling these characters out of the actors and assembling the story on stage. The technical aspects of the production were assembled by the usual REP team: Steven “Nanook” Burkholder (Sound Design), Tim Christianson (Lighting Design, with an assist from my daughter on hanging and aiming), and Jeff Hyde (Scenic Design). All were at the usual “excellent” REP level. Costumes were by Claudia Wells and the cast. “Sideman” was produced by Mikee Schwinn and Ovington Michael Owston. Katie Mitchell was the stage manager.

Side Man” runs for one more weekend at the REP, closing on August 28. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office. They are often up on Goldstar. There are two productions remaining in the REP MMX season: “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (September 17–October 16) and “Amadeus” (November 12–December 11). I learned from “O” that the 2011 season has been decided upon, but I’ll wait for the formal announcement from the REP so I don’t spoil their thunder. Look for it in my review of “Jekyll”, if not before.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next Friday brings us to North Hollywood and “U.S.S. Pinafore”, a mashup of Star Trek and Gilbert and Sullivan that’s running at the Crown City Theatre. September starts with “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. The following weekend brings The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum on September 11. The weekend of September 18 is Yom Kippur; no theatre is currently scheduled. The last weekend of September brings “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre. October is currently more open, with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East anticipated for October 9. and Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre ticketed for October 30. I should note that October 23 will be a Family Gaming Night at Temple Ahavat Shalom. , November will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (November 10–December 22, Hottix on sale September 9, potential date November 21); and Amadeus” at REP East (Potential date: November 27). December will bring Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 11). Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.