They say that art is the decoration of space, but music is the decoration of time. More than mere decoration, though, music captures time, preserves it, wrapping a lifetime of memories in the space of a few notes. It holds some people captive that way, too.
Directed by Jim Reiter, Side Man is a Pulitzer nominated and Tony Award-winnng play written by Warren Leight. It tells the story of the Glimmer family, specifically Gene Glimmer, a talented horn player who loves and lives music, to the exclusion of all else. Narrated by Clifford Glimmer, the play weaves in and out of time over a span of thirty years, taking us from the 50s, when big bands still dominated, into the 80s, when the musical legends of old were unknown and unwanted. He recounts how his parents met and fell in love, and how it all fell apart as the era of big bands and jazz fell by the wayside.
Jason Vellon plays Clifford Glimmer, our narrator. Clifford is a byproduct of his parents love, and the star witness to the long, excruciating deterioration of their relationship. With a cool, melancholy manner, he leads us on a journey to the past, through stories and memories and music. A few notes of Debussy that brought his parents together. Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show, heralding change with a swing of his hips and a guitar. And all throughout, tenacious, heartbreaking jazz. Vellon skirts a fine line as Clifford, embodying a detachment that almost but not quite masks the pain and frustration he feels towards his parents. It’s a subtle performance that will leave you aching.
Playing Gene Glimmer is Timothy Sayles. Gene is a professional sideman, a horn player who hires himself to play for bands and recordings, who can adept his style to fit smoothly with whichever group he plays with but also perform the solos, and who ultimately lives from gig to gig. It’s a life he’s happy with and one to which he’s become accustomed. But the life of a sideman is an insular one, and Gene has little interest in or ability to function in a world outside of it. Sayles is charming as Gene, making it easy to see how Terry falls in love with him. But he’s also painfully obtuse. Sayles’ portrayal makes it clear that Gene doesn’t mean to hurt anyone; he just lacks the ability to see far enough outside himself to realize that he has.
Terry Glimmer is played by Mary MacLeod. Even before meeting Gene, Terry is simply tragic. As Patsy remarks to Clifford, “Everyone turns on Terry.” Goodhearted, naïve, and neurotic in the beginning, Terry’s transformation over 30 years is wrenching to watch. MacLeod’s performance is impassioned and pulls on all the heartstings.
Ali Vellon plays Patsy, a waitress with a penchant for musicians. Though Patsy is a fixture in Gene’s world, she seems to have an awareness of its abnormality that Gene and his friends lack. She acts as perhaps the sole voice of reason to Clifford in the entire play. Vellon’s Patsy is a well-rounded woman, acting as siren, friend, and counselor in quick succession and making each transition feel natural.
Richard Koster, Rick Estberg, and Ben Carr play Gene’s friends and fellow musicians, Al, Ziggy, and Jonesy respectively. Like Gene, their characters exist in their own world of jazz, though they each display moments that show a bit more personal awareness than Gene. Just a bit, though. All three men give strong performances that help suck the audience deeper and deeper into Gene’s world.
The staff for Side Man is as incredible as the cast. Colonial Players alums Wes Bedsworth and Herb Elkin produced and stage managed respectively. Lighting Designer Eric Lund has done an amazing job, almost single handedly creating seamless transitions between points in time. In one memorable scene in the second act, his lighting brings the audience into the transcendent musical moment Gene and his friends’ experience.
Set Designer Carol Youmans and Properties Designer Charlotte Robinson have also done astonishing work. The set accommodates the fluid time line, beginning the play with a fairly stark stage that becomes increasingly crowded as Terry and Gene build their lives together. There are a dizzying number of set pieces and props.
Sound Designer Sarah Wade and Director Jim Reiter helped tie everything together with music selections and sound effects, giving the audience the feeling of real musicians being in the theater.
The Colonial Players have mounted a beautiful and touching production of Side Man. Warren Leight’s extraordinary Side Man is an ode to men who lived for and within their music, and a dirge for the lives they neglected and destroyed in their single-minded passion.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 20-minute intermission.