The Tin Pan Alley Rag
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
July 16, 2009
Manufactured history is nothing new to drama. One of the most exciting scenes in Schiller's Mary Stuart is scene in which Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I meet up, an event that never actually happened.
The stakes aren't as high for Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin upon first thought. They, too, take a fictitious meeting in Mark Saltzman's The Tin Pan Alley Rag at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. However, thinking about it, they have more in common than they seem. While neither man is fighting for their life or a kingdom, they're fighting for something just as important: legacy.
The plot of this play with music revolves around this meeting, where Joplin, initially assuming the identity of his own agent, comes to Berlin's music publishing shop to try and convince Berlin and his partner Snyder to publish Treemonisha, Joplin's ragtime opera. Once Berlin realizes that Joplin is Joplin, it paves the way for "this is your life" style flashbacks telling the stories of their lives and how they both rose to prominence, with Berlin eventually picking up where Joplin left off, despite the fact that, according to the character of Joplin, Berlin's music isn't really ragtime.
There are a number of moments in The Tin Pan Alley Rag that show a great deal of promise, but a variety of things keep it from reaching the heights of the music by the respective composers that is included.
Michael Therriault as Berlin fares better than Michael Boatman's Joplin. Part of this is due to the writing. Berlin gets all the humor, even if it is old Borscht Belt jokes; Joplin is written as very stiff and professorial. Therriault, sprightly, delivers an impression of a Brooklyn Jew; Boatman never has the opportunity to loosen up, except for one scene where, when an overzealous composer tries to sell his piece to Berlin, he poses as the person Berlin pays to transcribe his songs (playing into the rumor that Berlin, who actually couldn't read music, paid "a little black boy" to do this task).
The dynamite ensemble really takes charge in this piece. The eternally acerbic Michael McCormick is very good as Snyder (he's unfortunately too old to play Berlin, depicted here as in his early 20s). Jenny Fellner, criminally underused, is lovely as Berlin's wife who catches typhoid fever on their honeymoon and dies shortly after. Rosena M. Hill is outstanding in a variety of roles, one or two of which require her to sing, along with other cast members, excerpts from Treemonisha.
The excerpts from Joplin's opera are just about the only bits of music in the show that aren't truncated for one reason or another. Just as the audience begins the "ooohs" of recognition when they hear "The Entertainer," it's broken up by dialogue.
Despite being directed within an inch of its life by Stafford Arima, long stretches still languish in slow pacing. The flashbacks are given able support by Beowulf Borit's clever turntable set and Howell Binkley's evocative lighting.
But what music. Near the end, we hear a symphony, played on two pianos, an amalgam of Berlin's greatest hits. Following that, we have a performance of "A Real Slow Drag," from Treemonisha, which was given its first full production in 1975, long after Joplin's death. No, they weren't kings of any country, but they were kings of an artform.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, is the ordinariness of Saltzman's script. These men deserve more than just a standard flashback bio-play.