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A jazz Side Man faces irrelevance in Las Vegas Little Theatre’s ho-hum season opener

<p>Courtesy: Susannah Smitherman</p>

Courtesy: Susannah Smitherman

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Las Vegas Little Theatre opened its 35th season last weekend with Warren Leight’s Tony-winning 1998 play Side Man, directed by Rob Kastil. Leight’s autobiographical memory play tells the story of a jazz musician struggling as his art becomes obsolete, a wife battling to be heard and a son’s endless efforts to create peace between his feuding parents — or at least clean up their nightly messes.

Side Man is told through the perspective of the couple’s son, Clifford, named after jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. Played by Jason Niño, Clifford opens the play by addressing the audience as he sets out to visit his parents, Terry (Tressa Bern) and Gene Glimmer (Mario Mendez).

From there, Niño adopts a wry, self-effacing delivery style (think Neil Simon meets Jersey Boys, but without the music) as he narrates scenes, navigating David Sankuer’s slick set design and sharing the more memorable moments of his parents’ tumultuous 30-year marriage.

Bern captivates the audience as the musician’s wife, both as the naïve young version who doesn’t know the difference between cigarettes and joints and thinks “call girls” are ladies who answer phones, and the snarly, bitter, door-slamming, scene-stealing alcoholic she becomes after years of unhappy marriage. Bern hurls F-bombs with authenticity, making her moments of heart-wrenching sadness as a failed mother something more profound.

Mendez is more understated as Gene, showing the distance he has with his family compared to the comfort he feels when handling his trumpet and sharing memories of long-ago gigs with his musician friends. A musical moment between father and son tries for but doesn’t quite hit an emotional chord, an issue that plagues this solid but never-quite-powerful production.

Michael Kimm, as heroin addict Jonesy, shows surprising pathos in his ability to understand Terry. He also realizes before his bandmates that they’re the last of a dying breed, and shows the most anguish when his ability to perform is literally beaten out of him. Other characters don’t get the chance to emerge much from caricature, and the music itself is a distant side note; you wouldn’t come here for the jazz.

Proving that some things never change, the LVLT audience is eager to voice its opinions — throughout the entire production. In this case, they expressed their enjoyment of Bern’s over-the-top performance, complained about the annoyingly overwrought lisp of one cast member and seemed, in the end, rather ho-hum about the whole production. While the running commentary was annoying as hell, I had to agree on all counts.

Side Man Fri-Sat, 8p, Sun, 2p, through Sept. 30; Las Vegas Little Theatre, 3950 Schiff Drive, 362-7996, $21-$24