BWW Reviews: Montae Russell Channels Charlie 'Bird' Parker in BIRD LIVES! at the Chromolume Theatre at the Attic
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, KS on August 29, 1920, and raised in Kansas City, MO, the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11, and at age 14 he joined his school's band using a rented school instrument. He withdrew from Lincoln High School in December 1935, just before joining the local musicians' union.
Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career. This and its shortened form "Bird" continued to be used for the rest of his life, and inspired the titles of a number of Parker compositions, such as "Yardbird Suite", "Ornithology", "Bird Gets the Worm", and "Bird of Paradise."
He became an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, personifying the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer.
Parker is best remembered as a leading figure in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique and improvisation, combining jazz with other musical genres, including blues, Latin, and classical. He is to Jazz what Elvis is to Rock and Roll; a forefather of a new style of music that caught on and took the world by storm.
In the show, Parker admits to being a fool, knowing that drugs are the key to death's door. But like so many idolized musicians, Parker fought alcohol and hard drug addiction, as well as a bleeding ulcer, and died on March 12, 1955. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker's 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age, obviously the result of his life-long body abusing addictions.
Fortunately Parker's belief that "music is like a fire to warm your hands on" and a "joyful noise" is currently being celebrated in BIRD LIVES! at the Chromolume Theatre at the Attic starring Montae Russell as the jazz icon. Written by Willard Manus and directed by Tommy Hicks, the play continues with a strictly limited engagement through September 21 only.
The intimate black box venue with 50 seats certainly is reminiscent of early jazz clubs in the 1940's, right down to the heat of being in an enclosed room without windows or the benefit of air conditioning. Dress appropriately and bring a fan!
Montae Russell is a veteran television, theatre, and film actor, most recognizable for playing paramedic Dwight Zadro on NBC's ER for 15 seasons. His performance as Parker in BIRD LIVES! is an amazing feat of artistry from mimicking Parker's signature saxophone playing, sinking into the depths of addiction, describing his many attempts at recovery, and expressing the joy and heartbreak of fatherhood. It is a tour-de-force 90 minute performance that will open your eyes to the jazz icon's ups and downs throughout his short life.
For Parker, this included not being allowed to stay in the hotels where he performed, nor being able to enter through the front door of establishments in segregated America prior to World War II. Yet when he performed in Paris, he was treated like royalty, the same duplicity suffered during the 1920's by singer Josephine Baker. In 1945, Parker marveled at the many jazz clubs in New York City where he performed for integrated audiences who appreciated, and could dance together to, his new style of music. Russell's emotional dramatization of this part of Parker's life is a show highlight, reminding us what this iconic performer had to live through for the sake of his art.
Playwright Willard Manus has had numerous plays produced in Los Angeles including Frank and Ava, a two-character play about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, which recently concluded a six-month run at Three Clubs in Hollywood after winning a Best Play prize in the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Marilyn-My Secret, co-written with Odalys Nanin, is now running at the Macha Theatre in WeHo. These plays, along with BIRD LIVES!, demonstrate Manus' real skill in merging personal fact into an interesting staged character study.
Director Tommy Hicks is more widely known for his starring roles in independent feature films including Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It! Obviously a real fan of Parker's and jazz in general, Hicks treats both Parker's successes and demons equally, allowing Russell to fully express the full scope of his success and adversity.
And thanks to the many Parker jazz recordings featured in the show, you will leave the theater with a new appreciation of his artistry thanks to the full force portrayal by Montae Russell.
BIRD LIVES! continues on Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through September 21. Tickets are $20, with discounts for students and seniors ($17) and children 12 and under ($15), and may be purchased online at www.crtheatre.com, or via telephone at 323-205-1617. Chromolume Theatre at the Attic is located at 5429 W. Washington Boulevard (between the 10 freeway and Hauser Boulevard), in Los Angeles, 90016. Ample street parking is available.
For more information, visit www.crtheatre.com or call 323-510-2688.
Photos by James Esposito