Friday, July 17, 2009

The Tin Pan Alley Rag (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

First things first. Playwright Mark Saltzman’s imagined early 20th century meeting between composers Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin on the fabled New York publishing street is far superior to most theatrically imagined meetings between great people. Berlin was then a songwriter with a golden touch and a prominent music publisher himself, and Joplin, the so-called “ragtime king” was desperate to get his opera “Treemonisha” published

There is an inevitable air of didacticism, however, as the biographical details of each man’s life are dutifully trotted out. But Stafford Arima’s brisk direction – and Beowulf Boritt’s fluid set design – go a long way to balance the occasionally talky – if necessary -- exposition. So, too, Michael Boatman as Joplin and especially Michael Therriault as the scrappy Berlin are engaging performers who make their impersonations utterly convincing, even if some may quibble with Saltzman’s dramatic license of having Joplin urge Berlin to put art ahead of commerce, and raise the level of his songs, as if the savvy Berlin needed the prodding.

The first act is comprised mostly of Berlin’s reminiscences of life as a singing waiter on the lower East Side, the meteoric success of his catchy ethnic and novelty songs and his partnership with Teddy Snyder (played with colorful con-man panache by Michael McCormick), contrasted with the classically trained Joplin’s backstory as a ragtime pianist with increasingly ambitious aspirations, composing first a ballet suite, and then his aforementioned masterwork.

Especially compelling is Saltzman’s juxtaposing of the parallel tragedies in the men’s lives. Both lost their beloved brides early – Berlin’s Dorothy Goetz (Jenny Fellner) died of typhoid after their honeymoon in Cuba, and Scott’s Freddie Alexander (Idara Victor) -10 weeks after their wedding of pneumonia while Joplin was on the road.

Joplin would die of syphilis at age 49, but when “Treemonisha” was finally staged in the 70s, it would win the Pulitzer. Particularly touching (apocryphal or not) – and beautifully played by Therriault -- is a graceful montage of a gradually aging Berlin to the strains of his latter-day classics – finally seeing the opera performed.

Though not a musical per se, “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” offers bountiful excerpts from both men’s oeuvre, including a couple of well sung extended sequences from “Treemonisha,” and the particularly infectious counter-pointed duet for the pair of “Play A Simple Melody.” Both Therriault and Boatman credibly take to their uprights throughout the evening, though the actual playing is done by musical director Michael Patrick Walker and Brian Cimmet offstage.

A versatile supporting cast of 10 plays multiple roles keeping the stage well populated with colorful characters.

Sugar-coated history or not, “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” wins you over with humor and heart.

Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St.
212-719-1300 or Print this post


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