Warren Leight’s 1999 Tony Award winner for best play and Pulitzer Prize finalist lives up to its rep in this impressively staged Pasadena Playhouse outing. Director Andrew J. Robinson and an excellent ensemble achieve an evocative aura of time and place in this comically tragic tale of sublimely innocent souls who lose themselves within the walls of their own artistry. Dennis Christopher and Mare Winningham are perfectly cast as the brilliant but life-challenged trumpeter Gene and his long-suffering wife Terry.
The big band sidemen of the swinging years rarely drew acclaim beyond the esteem they earned among their peers. During the 1930s and ’40s, they at least enjoyed fairly consistent employment as jazz orchestras plied their musical wares around the U.S. in club dates, concerts and recording sessions, to the delight of millions of Lindy-hopping youth. But by 1953, the children of America had discovered rhythm and blues.
Everyone knows big band jazz is dead and gone, except for self-deluding trumpeters Gene (Christopher), Al (Gareth Williams) and Ziggy (Ethan Phillips), as well as their doper trombonist buddy Jonesy (Daniel Reichert).
Leight’s hauntingly accurate portrait is highlighted by one perfect moment: The four endearing but emotionally flawed artists completely forget their downtrodden existence as they listen in mesmerized adoration to a recording of jazz trumpet legend Clifford Brown performing a series of brilliant ad-lib choruses on the Dizzy Gillespie jazz standard “Night in Tunisia.” In this scene, the playwright has distilled the callow but joyous nature of these horn men who cannot help but allow their lives to be defined and hobbled by their music.
Play unfolds as the pained memories of Gene’s emotionally drained son Clifford (J.D. Cullum). Leight follows these child-like musical dinosaurs from 1953 to 1985 as they stumble through the decades, making a ritual of surviving on unemployment while never looking past the next gig. Trapped within this non-life is emotionally fragile Terry (Winningham), who eventually finds solace from her wasted life in booze and mental collapse. Also serving as a satellite to this clueless quartet is easygoing waitress Patsy (Lee Garlington), who roams among the men with a casual acceptance of her lot.
As Clifford surveys the disaster that has been his family life, he casts no blame. He can only marvel at the artistic passion that still drives these senior citizen hipsters to get up on the bandstand and blow.
Cullum achieves a perfect balance of weariness and affection as a son who desperately strives to achieve some sense of harmony between his parents, fully knowing he can never penetrate their lifelong dysfunction. Winningham’s Terry is as tragic as she is hilarious as the foul-mouthed innocent who never quite understands anything that’s happening around her. She’s perfectly matched by Christopher’s guileless Gene, who gradually loses hold on reality except for the connection between his soul and the three valves of his trumpet.
Williams, Phillips and Reichert offer perfect comic relief as the guileless trio of horn men. They are complemented by Garlington’s life-loving Patsy, who provides them with the only true understanding they have ever known.
The production is enhanced greatly by composer Peter Erskine’s original score, pre-recorded by Andy Haderer (trumpet), Rolf Romer (reeds), Frank Chastenier (piano), John Goldsby (bass) and Erskine (drums).