It is difficult to find anything flattering to say about the Off Broadway musical “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” which opened at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. That is especially disappointing because it celebrates the works of two iconic American composers, Irving Berlin (Michael Therriault) and Scott Joplin (Michael Boatman).
Joplin, who wrote “The Entertainer” (revived as the theme song for “The Sting”), also composed the opera “Treemonisha” for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1976. It’s this lesser known work which is the focus in this musical biography where Joplin shops his tale about a black community’s emergence from slavery through education.
Given the stuffy revival that scenes from the opera receive here, I can easily appreciate how long it took for the piece written in 1910 to garner popularity. Frankly, if “Tin Pan Alley’s” final scene, a staging of the finale from “Treemonisha” weren’t surrounded by the words “Pulitzer Prize” in big big type, I might still not appreciate it.
Regardless, Joplin’s opera is a sophisticated blend of the European style with African folk songs, ballet and ritual dance. It goes far beyond his popular ragtime melodies with their juxtaposition of John Philip Sousa’s marches against an amalgam of African rhythms.
And while those syncopated beats generate a sense of buoyancy, the composer is portrayed here through the tragic trajectory of his personal and professional life. The loss of his wife within weeks of their marriage, a scar he never overcame and which inspired “Treemonisha”, was followed by bouts of illness and culminated in his untimely passing in 1917 at just 50 years old. His portrait is paced in slow, lugubrious measures. Sadly, playwright Mark Saltzman affords the King of Ragtime only one humorous line, “Oy”.
It’s a tasking assignment for the actor Michael Boatman who plays the heavy amidst a crowd of cartoon-like characters. Foremost among them, of course, is Irving Berlin whose tale comes first, encompassing Act I. The show necessarily includes many of Berlin’s well-known melodies compared to a handful of Joplin’s.
The plot, incidentally, turns around a fictionalized encounter in Berlin’s office where Joplin, thinly disguised as the musician’s “plugger”, arrives to promote his opera. What follows is a sequence of sketches in which their parallel life stories are revealed and their famous works performed.
Michael Therriault paints Irving Berlin with quick comedic strokes, which while adept do not hide Saltzman’s inability to write a multidimensional character. The supporting actors straddled by the boorish, boring stereotypes in which they are cast, fare more poorly. Berlin’s wife (Jenny Fellner), for instance, who reportedly played such a significant role in her husband’s personal life, comes across as shrill and superficial. With her repeated remark, “As we say in Buffalo, ‘this is some pumpkins!’” she seems like a potential albatross, rather than a muse. The one standout performance is Michael McCormick as Berlin’s pushy business partner.
As directed by Stafford Arima, it is the meeting of the two composers that represents a direct counterpoint. There’s Joplin on one hand, a well-educated man and a classically trained pianist whose pursuit is his art. Berlin, on the other, is something of a Jewish marketing savant – an acquisitive immigrant who succeeds without education or musical training.
Unfortunately, the composers’ diverse goals never develop into dramatic tension. Unlike the ragtime music they created in which the right hand plays contrasting rhythms to the left, creating a frisson of sound and movement, “Tin Pan Alley” delivers merely a linear plot.
While Joplin’s “Treemonisha” may have been the sleeper of the early 20th century, this show about it might better be called a “schnorrer”.
By: Isa Goldberg
The Tin Pan Alley Rag
June 12 – Sept. 6, 2009
Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg
Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St (6th & 7th Aves)
Ticket Services: 212.719.1300
Opening Night – July 14, 2009