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[whitespace] 'Side Man'
Major Dischord: The Glimmers, Crazy Terry (Deborah Offner), Clifford (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Gene (James Carpenter), settle in for the nightly family ritual of dinner and a fight.

High Notes

SJ Rep scores with jazz drama 'Side Man' by Warren Leight

By Heather Zimmerman

FROM BEAUTIFUL MUSIC comes emotional noise in Side Man, Warren Leight's "autobiographical enough" tribute to jazz sidemen. The play won the 1999 Tony award for best play, and no wonder: it's not only a shockingly frank family drama but also a tender homage to a lost art. San José Repertory Theatre gets its season off to an electrifying start with Leight's personal look at a lesser-known aspect of the jazz scene.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach evinces a sense of resigned but vulnerable strength as Clifford Glimmer, the grown son of a talented trumpet player, Gene Glimmer (James Carpenter). Clifford recounts his family's story, from Gene's early successes as a side man in 1950s New York to the decline of the big band and, consequently, the Glimmer family, through the '60s to the '80s. Leight doesn't merely portray past events in flashback--rather, scenes happen as Clifford narrates them, making a seamless transition between Clifford the adult narrator and Clifford the child--a subtle distinction, since Clifford has always been the grownup in his household.

At Clifford's birth in the '50s, the nucleus of Gene Glimmer's nuclear family is his trumpet. Gene is a sideman to his own life, living for his music to the exclusion of everything else, and Carpenter plays him as utterly bewildered by the business of everyday life. His artistic devotion first attracts and later repels Clifford's mom, Crazy Terry (Deborah Offner, powerful in a complex role), who lives up to her nickname with booze-fueled breakdowns. Rounding out this decidedly nontraditional family are a trio of Gene's fellow trumpeter sidemen--Al, Jonesy and Ziggy (Steven Anthony Jones, Howard Swain and John Flanagan)--and Patsy (Sheila O'Neill Ellis), a waitress at the musicians' regular gigging spot.

Director Michael Butler finds the strengths of these actors as an ensemble and as individuals, shedding light on Clifford's generalizations about the musical life as he fills them in with personal recollections, taking us from seeing these people as indistinguishable deadbeats to singular talents whom he clearly respects, in spite of their failings. Dipu Gupta's set beautifully captures the play's emotional nuances--within the family and inherent in jazz itself--with a distinctive backdrop of wide panels of primary-colored moiré-patterned plastic that evoke the spare elegance of 1950s swankiness (the effect is, fittingly, both cheap and regal). The lighting by Derek Duarte captures the set's musical metaphors, morphing its primary colors into many shades, from muddy, muted hues to garishly bright single notes.

Likewise, Leight presents a complex spectrum of life within the jazz scene. Although we see how growing up has scarred Clifford, it's clear he loves the music. At the end, when Clifford describes his father and his cronies as a dying breed, he almost conveys a hint of relief. Much more so, however, he expresses a profound sense of regret not only that what informed so much of his own life could disappear but also that such a powerful emotional force--both creative and destructive--could ever be forgotten. Leight has made sure that, for better and worse, it won't be.

Side Man plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $17-$37. (408.367.7255)

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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