Charlie “Yardbird” Parker has been dead for almost a half-century, and yet the saxophonist’s name and music have a stubborn staying power. From Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic to the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, Bird remains a potent pop culture icon. But the question is: Why?
In Willard Manus’ Bird Lives!, the playwright looks beyond Parker’s music and offers a raw examination of the man behind the legend. The 70-minute production, directed by Tommy Hicks at the Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, unravels like a Shakespearean tragedy, laying bare a brief and hard life, which makes Parker's musical accomplishments seem all the more remarkable in retrospect.
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The one-man show rests on the shoulders of actor Montae Russell, who not only resembles Parker but delivers a moving performance that deftly confronts the saxophonist’s darkest moments battling heroin addiction, racial discrimination and the death of a child. Of course, the play also benefits from having a terrific soundtrack — effectively mimed by Russell on a saxophone to canned backing tracks, which works so long as the audience uses some imagination.
The effect is an emotionally exhausting but humanizing depiction of the bebop jazz pioneer. Even though Parker passed away much too soon, at age 34, for 70 minutes onstage, Montae Russell reminds us why Bird Lives!
Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., Mid-City. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 21. www.crtheatre.com
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