The tragically brief life and career of Charlie "Bird" Parker consumes “Bird Lives!” at the Attic. Willard Manus’ examination of the saxophone virtuoso receives an ambitious, idiosyncratic Chromolume Theatre reading.
From the first glimpse of Montae Russell, whose shambling posture and sweet-sad visage clearly resemble Bird's, things are intriguing. Efficiently miming sax licks to the real article’s recorded tracks – an effect that could only be bettered by its sound coming from an upstage rather than downstage speaker -- Parker greets us with a pointed quote from the 33rd Psalm and moves into his life story, and what a story it is.
The various greats who influenced him, the differences between being an African American artist in Europe and the United States, the police targeting, the wives, the debts, the drugs – they’re all here.
Sometimes this proves riveting, as in the lengthy sequence wherein the NYPD narcotics department approaches Bird to become a snitch. Or the centrifugal segment in Camarillo’s mental ward, difficult, surreal, exactly right.
What’s less so, from a theatrical standpoint, is author Manus’ determination to get everything into a 70-minute piece. Although his research is impressive, affording us a handy pocket history of Parker, in so short a span it might be wiser to focus on two or three key events and reveal the man behind the mythology through character conflict and behavioral details rather than described occurrences.
Nor does director Tommy Hicks find many dynamic levels in his staging. Although Russell, an actor of considerable presence and technique, gives it his all, the subtle variants of this heroin-addicted personality must be taken on faith -- bonhomie and belligerence don’t automatically suggest the miasma of the opiated.
That said, it’s an obvious labor of love and, as such, merits further development. It goes without saying that Parker devotees, jazz scholars and the uninitiated could find it of value and significance.
"Bird Lives!," Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 21. $20. www.crtheatre.com or (323) 205-1617. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times