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"Side Man"

Rating: ***

Drama by Warren Leight about jazz musicians.

Directed by Tom Makar for Ujima Theatre Company.

Wednesdays through Sundays through Dec. 1 in TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.

"Side Man" is playwright Warren Leight's acclaimed sad tribute to jazz musicians, particularly those he calls "endangered species," the back-up guys, the invaluable horn and reed players left over from America's swing era who, after a gig, gathered for all-night jams, many times just to hear their pals say, "Hey, nice blowin', man."

Leight's play - currently at Ujima Theatre Company as their second offering this season - is a memory piece, the story not always recalled affectionately by a young man, Clifford, so named after the legendary jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. Having had enough of his dysfunctional family and friends, Clifford departs for California. You get the feeling that Clifford won't be back to the East Coast.

Clifford narrates the tale and, through many vignettes, drifts back to the 1950s, before Elvis and pre-British invasion, returns to 1985, then goes back again. He sets up scenes with his alcoholic and mentally unstable mother, Terry, and his father, Gene, who is clueless about anything but his music, his mind a jumble of riffs and rhythms, harmonies and chords. Clifford says that his father was only truly "with it" when he was playing his horn, and as "Side Man" progresses that becomes very clear.

Others in the mix include fellow musicians Al, Ziggy and Jonesy, along with everybody's favorite waitress, the oft-wed Patsy. There is much coffee shop chat as the guys tell again the probably apocryphal stories from their halcyon days with Woody Herman or Charlie Barnett and then moan about their current smaltzy jobs with waltz kings or Lester Lanin. Gene seems to speak for all of them: "I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career."

"Side Man" tells a disintegrating story. Terry is out of control, Gene continues to dream, Jonesy is a junkie, Clifford is depressed. There are some violent scenes at home. Packing his bags for good, Clifford again asks that age-old question, "Why was I born?"

His parents and their cronies - Clifford mockingly calls them his "role models" - haven't an answer.

Tom Makar, an in-demand theatrical sound designer for years in Buffalo, directs this story about imperfect people, as he says, having been "moved, amused and impressed by them." Makar sets a brisk pace for "Side Man."

The ensemble work, too, is admirable: John Warren is a believable, sardonic Clifford, very effective in trying to keep things together; Phil Knoerzer is nice-guy Gene, content to know that his contemporaries respect his playing. A laid-back but sage portrayal by this journeyman actor. Michele Ninacs, scarily good, has the difficult role of Terry, she of much profanity, a good deal of it gratuitous, I think. The excellent Tom LaChuisa is the strung-out, funny but pathetic Jonesy. Kevin Costa and Kevin Barwell have fine minutes, and Constance McEwen plays Patsy with plenty of wink, adding some color to dark goings-on even if some of her dialogue sounds dippy. A strong cast - and they make "Side Man" work.

Director Makar finds no fault with the many stereotypes in Leight's story and allows a scene involving the discovery of a Clifford Brown tape - Gene is in awe here, recognizing his own lost potential - to linger too long.

The set is by Scott Behrend, the lighting by Brian Cavanaugh.

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