Side Man at the Apollo Theatre
A British theatre audience was always going to view Broadway transfer Side Man a bit suspiciously. In the 1999 Tony Awards, America's highest theatrical accolades, three out of four nominations for Best New Play were British goods - Patrick Marber's Closer, Martin McDonagh's Lonesome West and the National's production of Tennessee Williams' long-lost early play Not About Nightingales - with only this offering by Warren Leight representing the home team. Despite the odds, guess who scooped the prize.
So my opinion may be tinged with reverse prejudice, or maybe it's just plain culture clash, but I have to say that this part jazz age tribute, part family tragedy tale, directed by Michael Mayer, would never have won my vote over the other three, let's be honest, superior contenders.
Still, Side Man is not without its allure. It tells the story of a family torn apart by the trumpeter father's single-minded devotion to his music, despite the gradual but ceaseless decline of jazz from the hip 50s to the soulless 80s.
Edie Falco (best known from TV's The Sopranos), as mother Terry, is absolutely the most compelling aspect of this production. In bone-chilling fashion, she charts the transformation of Terry from a giggling and naïve young girl who always orders Shirley Temples to a bitter and suicidal alcoholic who wanders the streets of New York losing her clothes and her marbles.
Frank Wood is remarkable too as father Gene, who can't look his son in the eye and prefers to caress his horn rather than his wife. To say that his acting is understated is an understatement. Wood's performance, which won the show another Tony, is more about absence than presence, his Gene showing signs of life only when the music infuses him.
His sidekick sidemen (side men being the jobbing back up musicians in a jazz band) are a much more energetic lot and, with their banter, provide the evening's comic fuel, particularly Michael Mastro's lisping Ziggy and Kevin Geer's heroin-riddled Jonesy.
Which leaves only the show's biggest star, ex Beverley Hills 90210 Brandon Jason Priestley to stumble around the stage like a spare part as son Clifford, named after jazz man Clifford Brown. Priestley narrates his family implosion, but despite stepping directly in to the action as peacemaker at 10, 21 and 30 years of age, he remains disappointingly detached, both emotionally and physically.
I couldn't help feeling detached either. A stronger Clifford would have helped as would some actual live jazz (which seems a gross oversight given the subject matter), but in the end, Side Man fails to captivate because Leight's autobiographical story simply isn't fleshed out enough. As part family tragedy and part jazz age tribute, it is, unfortunately, never wholly either.