Chicago Theatre Review
He’s a Cornet Man
Side Man – American Blues Theater
A Pulitzer Prize nominee and Broadway’s 1999 Tony Award-winner for Best Play is currently being given a towering production at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The intimacy of this space serves this drama so well since, like “The Glass Menagerie,” this is a memory play. Written by American playwright Warren Leight, this poignant, sometimes funny and often painfully honest portrait of one particular family is filled with both agony and affection.
Narrated by his only son, Clifford has returned home to New York for a surprise visit with his father Gene, a jazz trumpet-playing side man. The play then flip-flops back and forth through time, depicting how Clifford came to be in this place and time, alternating between his parents’ barebones apartment, the diner where Gene, his wife Terry and his musician buddies hung out, as well as the various clubs and cabarets where they performed over the years. Clifford recalls how his parents first met, their financial woes and the emotional problems they suffered, how drugs and alcohol played a part in the lives of his extended family and how he got to where he is today.
Inspired by the life of his own father, Leight paints a portrait of an all-but-forgotten segment of the American music scene, when jazz venues hired versatile, transient musicians to fill in when a big band or name performer came to town. The work was steady, if not predictable; the income usually less than adequate. But a side man didn’t work for the money as much as for his love of the art. And therein lay the problem.
Terry, his mother, was once a naive young girl, charmed by Gene’s exciting stories about association with the likes of Frank Sinatra and other famous singers and musicians. She thought her life would be glamorous and want for nothing. What Terry found instead was a life spent tucked away inside a sparsely furnished apartment, saddled with a baby and a menial job at the diner to help pay the bills. With her husband always away on the road playing a gig somewhere or out hanging with his pals, Terry filled her lonely life with liquor and pills. As her emotional needs became more pronounced Gene’s presence became scarcer. It was up to young Clifford to keep the house, cook the meals and referee the battles between his parents. Yet somehow, despite years of heartache and pain, Clifford still loved his parents. His fond memories of that time in his life are what brought Clifford to this day.
Director Jonathan Berry has smoothly guided his talented cast through this stunning production of Leight’s award-winning play. His cast is exceptional. Kate Buddeke is feisty, frightening and fragile as the heartbreaking Terry. Michael Ehlers brings a soulful dignity and a quiet sadness to Gene. Michael Mahler excels as a sympathetic young Clifford, the son who became housekeeper, nursemaid and counselor for his parents. His story is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking of them all. Gail Rastorfer is terrific as, Patsy, the sassy, hardworking waitress at the local diner and everybody’s girl. Joe Faust, John Gawlik and Ed Kross turn in strong performances as Gene’s cronies and fellow side men, Jonesy, Al and Ziggy.
In American Blues’ superb production, the country’s unsung artists of the 50’s and 60’s jazz and cabaret music scene are celebrated and portrayed with color and empathy. The musician’s difficult life, especially the migratory side man, is depicted without rose colored glasses or apologies. And in this wonderful show the sadness and pain that such a life often inflicted upon a family and friends is displayed with stark honesty, laced with smooth, cool jazz.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 24-May 24 by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.AmericanBluesTheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theaterinchicago.com.