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If I were to draw up a list of the ten finest American plays of the past quarter-century, “Side Man,” Warren Leight’s Tony-winning 1998 memory play about his parents’ fractured marriage, would be on it. Yet revivals of “Side Man” are rare, perhaps because its author no longer spends much time in the theater game: Mr. Leight is now the showrunner for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and it’s been nine years since a full-length play of his was last seen on a New York stage. So when Chicago’s American Blues Theater announced plans to produce “Side Man,” I booked a flight to see what a company about which I’ve heard good things would do with a play that I love. I wasn’t disappointed: Jonathan Berry has staged “Side Man” with a poignant simplicity that allows the vital performances of his ensemble cast to shine forth unobscured by diversionary directorial stuntwork.
Gene Glimmer (Michael Ehlers), Mr. Leight’s fictionalized father, is a journeyman trumpeter who got his start in the big bands of the ‘40s and lived long enough to see the swinging musical culture of his youth pulverized by the rise of rock. Dedicated to his art to the point of obsession, he neglects his family, and his blank inaccessibility drives Terry (Kate Buddeke), his wife, to drink and madness. Even though Mr. Leight sketches Gene’s nocturnal milieu in rich and revealing detail, “Side Man” is less a play about jazz than a life study of the open wounds in the flesh of a family at war with itself….
Having seen both the letter-perfect original Broadway production of “Side Man” and an exceptionally fine 2012 Washington-area revival by 1st Stage, I can report that this one is absolutely up to scratch. Anchored by a raw and desperate performance by Ms. Buddeke, it’s played out on a nightclub-and-cheap-apartment set in a 90-seat black-box theater that puts you a heartbeat away from the action….
American theater audiences can’t seem to get enough of Jane Austen. Having reveled last season in Bedlam Theatre Company’s scampering small-scale adaptation of Kate Hamill’s ingenious stage version of “Sense and Sensibility,” I now find myself reporting on the Chicago Shakespeare premiere of Paul Gordon’s chamber musical based on the same 1811 novel about the eternally diverting romantic misadventures of the Dashwood sisters—and it, too, is a winner.
Mr. Gordon has made the unexpected decision to put all the wit (and plot) of “Sense and Sensibility” into his book and all the romance into his score, which is written in a contemporary-pop idiom that is disarmingly warm and lyrical without once stooping to Disneyfication….
Megan McGinnis and Sharon Rietkerk, who play Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, are lovely and right: Your heart goes out to them the moment they step into the spotlight….
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To read my complete review of Side Man, go here.
To read my complete review of Sense and Sensibility, go here.
A montage of scenes from the Chicago Shakespeare premiere production of Sense and Sensibility: