PLAY IT AGAIN, BOYS
“The Tin Pan Alley Rag” by Mark Saltzman.
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin.
Directed by Stafford Arima.
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre,
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre,
111 W. 46th St., NYC.
June 12 - Sept. 6, 2009. Tues.-Sat. at 7:30; Wed., Sat. and Sun. at 2 PM.
Tickets and information: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org..
If you enjoy humming along to Irving Berlin tunes and tapping your toe to Scott Joplin, then “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” at the Laura Pels is a must-see. Their music and lyrics make up the score, and their lives provide the biographies for this new work by Mark Saltzman. What the play lacks in drama, it makes up for in historical insight and irony. Joplin, the better educated of the two, ties his personal failures to the economy and the demands of world events. He is a composer with a mission, an educated man with big ambitions. Berlin, who could neither read nor write music and had an elementary school education, is busy accumulating a small fortune to compensate for the poverty of his immigrant childhood. They come together in a fictive meeting at Berlin’s sheet music shop and vie amiably for the title of King of Ragtime. Mostly though the characters just want to tell their stories, complete with flashbacks.
There are scenes that seem true and fresh. Nervous musicians, their new compositions in hand, auditioning on 28th St., New York City, for Snyder & Berlin’s sheet music publishing company, the path to fame in the early twentieth century. Berlin offering novel advice to a writer on marketing a new song. The flashback of Berlin (Michael Therriault), just a kid working in dive, being discovered by Teddy Snyder (Michael McCormick), a big shot in the industry – and that marvelous on-the-spot audition with Berlin displaying a quick-witted genius for improvisation. Or Berlin syncopating a serious theme on his childhood in Russian into a commercial success -- “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Joplin’s story takes us into an entertainment parlor of the black community, where his “Maple Leaf Rag” is baptized and we get a glimpse of current dances. We hear the Rev. Alexander’s (Derrick Cobey) opposition to his teen-age daughter’s engagement to Scott Joplin (Michael Boatman, who played Carter on ABC’s “Spin City”), a musician with a reputation as a player and almost twice her age. And we witness the extraordinary cleverness of Freddie Alexander (Idara Victor) as she sweetly blackmails her dad into promoting her marriage with the rest of the disapproving family.
But many other scenes are barely more than tell-and-show, unfolding awkwardly while either Joplin or Berlin stands at the edge of the stage, uninvolved. These drag the play down and offer the actors, many with impressive theatre credits, little to build a character on. The performances, directed by Stafford Arima (who also directed “Altar Boyz) are all competent and professional, but uneven and mannered, as though the actors were still feeling their way. The dancing, on the other hand, is ready, willing and able (choreography by Liza Gennaro).
The bottom line is the music. Who can hear Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” “Yiddisha Nightingale,” and “When I Lost You,” and Joplin’s catchy “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “A Real Slow Drag” (arrangements by Brad Ellis and Michael Patrick Walker) and not be curious about the back stories, the places and people who shaped the music that has become the sound of America? Sometimes you can’t lose for winning.