The Crimson White

Jazz story ‘Side Man’ a little off-beat, ‘can’t give off real spark of genre’

Jared Downing

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For a story about jazz, The University of Alabama’s current show “Side Man” is pretty glum.

And for a show about ‘50s swingers, the narrator is kind of a dweeb. His name is Cliff Glimmer (Jacob Valleroy). He wears ‘80s dad jeans and sneakers and talks about his jazz-playing father and his cool-cat bandmates like a college student prepping his girlfriend to meet his embarrassing parents.

But we get the sense from the beginning that there isn’t much of a place anymore for Gene Glimmer (Chris Bellinger), a freelance trumpeter who spends his Saturday nights in the Sinatra era blowing for whatever band needs a spare horn. Through a series of flashbacks, Cliff walks us through his father’s three-decade staccato of hard liquor, seedy nightclubs and all-night jam sessions that gives way to welfare lines and a broken home as the Jazz Age fades out from under him.

Gene and his pals live for the next gig and spend their time discussing how to game the unemployment desk. Gene leaves his steadily declining wife Terry (Abby Jones) to absorb the fallout. Playwright Warren Leight’s semi-biographical script – Gene is based on his own father – is a tribute to the devil-may-care jazz epoch and a tragic portrait of a husband who can’t change with the times and a wife who can’t handle it.

We never see Gene or his buddies actually perform, but Leight’s dialogue jumps like a fast number. Gene’s ensemble sports Cooper Kennard, Michael Luwoye and Jeff Horger, the University’s venerable masters of the art of snark, but they have trouble finding a shared rhythm. Leight’s raunchy jabs and chops-bustin’ is halting where it should be slick, and much of it happens in a living room that sits up and away from the audience on what looks like a nightclub stage; it’s neat idea but does no favors for the energy. The script has a tricky rhythm and the show does its best, but it can’t give off the real spark of the genre. What Cliff shows us in those early years was doomed from the start. More than a homage, Leight’s is a human story of loneliness, faded dreams and lost passion. The decades turn Terry from a fiery-yet-naïve young woman into a suicidal alcoholic, a transformation Jones makes magnificently subtle. As his gigs dry up, Gene becomes so detached he can’t even remember to eat without writing it down. But Bellinger always manages to hold onto a stale shadow of passion; he shows us a man who doesn’t refuse to accept the life around him, but simply can’t.

The entire cast pulls it off beautifully. The slowly fading dream, the forgotten passion, and the last tatters of the spirit of a fiery age hang, distinctly, on everyone: the band, Carrie Poh’s cocktail waitress Patsy and even, to an extent, Valleroy’s Cliff. I haven’t seen anything like it here.

In one scene, Gene and his bandmates, now at the dusk of their careers, sit around an old recorder and listen to a trumpet player’s last performance, the night before he died. There’s jumps and howls, and director Stacy Alley asks us to join the old musicians as they lose themselves in the music. It’s disappointing that “Side Man” never quite manages to cast the same spell, but in the end, this a story about people, not music, and while you may not feel the spirit of jazz music, you can at least feel its loss.

 

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Jazz story ‘Side Man’ a little off-beat, ‘can’t give off real spark of genre’