From start to finish, "The Resurrection of Lady Lester" is a jazz story. The motifs are all there: booze, poor living, exploitation and incomprehension of the artist - gotta love this kind of music, eh?
It's not just a play Theatre X is putting on, mind you; "Lady Lester" is billed as "a poetic mood song based on the life on Lester Young." The writer of the piece - listed as Oyamo - explains in the program notes that, "This piece is not a schoolroom lesson on an eccentric American genius. (I have) used the `Legend of Lester Young' to create a universal story of an American musical hero . This play is intended for a general theatre audience."
With this intent in mind, the Theatre X production is a mixed bag.
Few will come to "Lady Lester" ignorant of the musical form itself, and the true aficionados should come early to hear a set from the UNM Jazz Combo - it definitely beats the pre-show tradition of just throwing on some old movie soundtrack CD. It also sets the tone for the "mood song" itself.
Despite its intended avoidance of adhering strictly to the Lester Young story, the play takes us through the jazzman's trials and tribulations via the well-worn device of a sick dude whose "trip is almost done" reflecting on his past.
Didn't local theatre fans just see the same thing in "Wit"?
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Lester is a man who "wanted to serve the music" while longing for a time when "presidents was good men and bop was in." Richard McClarkin, as Young, is quite good, allowing for characterization while never getting bogged down in the sentimentality that can threaten a work like this.
As for creating "a universal story of an American musical hero," Oyamo's script does an admirable job, forcing the audience to contemplate the darker side of the red, white and blue in the racism, Bible-thumping and specific hypocritical politics of "the home of the free."
The main negative - and it's distraction enough - with this production of "Lady Lester" is due to the venue itself. While director Curtis Childs' choices in staging are fine, Theatre X is seemingly incapable of providing the acoustics this very musical show demands.
If the music is in itself a character - and it should probably be considered as such - its performance in this play is showy and distracting. The Combo often provides incidental music to background scenes or transitions between to the great enhancement of the show. A handful of scenes that require monologue or dialogue over the jazz are lost in the sound. Poor McClarkin finds himself yelling over the music in order to be heard by one-third of the audience. This complaint aside, "The Resurrection of Lady Lester" should be considered a weekend date for jazz fans in which to envision the smoky and glorious gin-soaked past of a legend and a nation.
"The Resurrection of Lady Lester" plays at the Theatre X October 24-27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 for general admission and $5 for students.