Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tin Pan Alley Rag


By Mark Saltzman. Directed by Stafford Arima. Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre. (CLOSED)

Even as an excuse to hear a fair amount of tunes by Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, Mark Saltzman's high-concept play about an imagined meeting between these musical giants has most critics sounding bum notes. Though many praise the performances and the production, most rag on the play's didactic approach, its dubious historical inventions, its lack of conflict or drama. Almost all are charmed by Michael Therriault's Berlin (special props to AP's Michael Kuchwara for comparing the performance to Therriault's Gollum), though they're more divided on Michael Boatman's Joplin. Universal kudos also go to Beowulf Boritt's set, with Backstage's Eric Haagensen helpfully teaching us the word "periaktoid" (a three-sided scenic unit).

Bloomberg News A-
(John Simon) The likable “Tin Pan Alley Rag,” slightly bigger than a vest-pocket musical, has the unassuming charm of a winsome pet that gently nuzzles you...Some of it is factual, much of it invented, in a partly humorous, partly sentimental way...The show plugs into a favorite American myth, equal parts fact and fantasy, that Jews and blacks shared a collegial empathy and struggle. Certainly what we see onstage -- a black man and a Jew in musical and existential harmony -- is socially and spiritually heartening...All praise to Stafford Arima’s fleet yet unsuperficial direction...The Canadian actor Michael Therriault is a terrific Berlin, droll, bemused, brash or touching, all perfectly apportioned. Michael Boatman invests Joplin with exemplarily quiet dignity and, when called for, stirring indignation.

Financial Times B+
(Brendan Lemon) Entertaining, slightly irksome...Even allowing for dramatic licence there were moments when I wondered if I were watching the narratives of Berlin and Joplin, or the stories of two men who happen to fit into Saltzman's predetermined ideas about art versus commerce and black music versus white music...Exactly how did African and European influences blend to create American popular music? The greatest chroniclers of jazz have been unable to answer that question, so I was happy when Saltzman allowed his notions to emerge from the specificities of Berlin and Joplin's stories rather than from speculative pronouncements. It is also satisfying to hear Berlin and Joplin compositions performed by offstage pianists, and glorious onstage singers giving us snatches of Treemonisha. Under the fluid direction of Stafford Arima, the acting communicates the essence of the composers' parallel lives, especially their marriages, sundered heartbreakingly by the early deaths of their wives. As Berlin, Michael Therriault keeps the proto-Woody Allen impulses mostly in check. As Joplin, Michael Boatman not only registers the depth of his character's aches, romantic and artistic, but also proves once again his brilliance at conveying acidic intelligence.

CurtainUp B+
(Simon Saltzman) An amiable show that is not unlike a primer on Berlin and Joplin, as well as on the circa 1911 era that was set to define American pop music. Michael Boatman as Joplin and Michael Therriault as Berlin are able to credibly personify these unique musical immortals, a primer in performance craft...As you might expect in a show about Berlin and Joplin, the songs are recognizable, delectable and danceable, the latter particularly graced by Liza Gennaro's rag-timed choreography. The show makes generous use of early Berlin songs, as well as Joplin's folk ballet scores as a bridge for flash-backs into their respective lives, but without the songs being consigned to defining character...A loving tribute to the spirit of rag time and to two of the 20th century's most spirited composers.

The Hollywood Reporter B
(Frank Scheck) The show occasionally suffers from a tendency toward clunky speechifying. But anyone remotely interested in American popular music will find much to enjoy in this spirited production from the Roundabout Theatre Company...The show's episodic structure proves somewhat stilted, and it too often resorts to the forced doling out of biographical tidbits. But what saves the evening from its schematic tendencies is the music, both in the generous selections from the composers' output that are presented and in the depiction of the love of making it that they share...Therriault is wonderfully energetic and engaging as the supremely ambitious Berlin, while Boatman lends a moving dignity to Joplin, who is desperate to have his magnum opus published and produced.

(Roma Torre) Scores on many fronts. It's tunefully original, centering on an imagined meeting between music greats Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin; we're treated to some wonderful selections from their songbooks; and the performances are uniformly strong. But while there are flashes of brilliance, this is not an altogether cohesive work. It hits enough high notes to captivate in moments, but there are also times when it feels as if it's running strictly by the numbers...Through an ongoing series of flashbacks, we get biography lessons on each of them that are alternately enlightening and formulaic. This story-telling technique can make for fascinating theater, but Saltzman tends to rush through the facts, which, in turn, flattens the drama. Fortunately, there's so much talent invested here, the show is never less than interesting.

New Yorker B-
Simple, inoffensive, and eager to please. But at moments it resembles a singing encyclopedia entry...The presence of so many timeless songs only reminds us what Berlin and Joplin could do that Saltzman doesn’t: write from the heart without falling back on cliché.

Theatermania C+
(Brian Scott Lipton) If such a tete-a-tete did occur, let's hope it was more compelling than the one Saltzman has imagined for this occasionally entertaining if dramatically unfulfilling play...Mostly, the two bicker -- often in dialogue reminiscent of imitation Neil Simon -- as well as share their music (a particular treat for Berlin lovers), and ultimately bond over their peculiar shared fate...Beyond presenting these mini-bios, Saltzman has a seemingly larger goal, as the mysteriously ill Joplin is actually on hand to inspire Berlin to move beyond his Tin Pin Alley successes into creating great art. Unfortunately, these conversations often have the unpleasant whiff of Obi-Wan Kenobi advising Luke Skywalker...Fortunately, the piece does benefit from the efforts of its hard-working cast.

Variety C-
(David Rooney) Despite Stafford Arima's fluid direction, polished design contributions and an able cast, the material is ploddingly episodic and way too elementary in its presentation, never shaping the two composers into three-dimensional figures...To suggest, however fancifully, that one of the greatest composers of the classic American Songbook only evolved from commercial success into work with a more enduring artistic legacy because Joplin nudged him in that direction is reductive. Dramatic tension is minimal...Many of the episodes are entertaining, and there are charming moments particularly in Joplin's recollections. But the halting momentum of each man's story means neither one of them develops much as a character.

Backstage C-
(Erik Haagensen) Playwright Mark Saltzman clearly loves the work of Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin, and he wants to share it with the world. And, indeed, whenever music takes center stage in The Tin Pan Alley Rag, there is enjoyment to be had. Unfortunately, the play Saltzman has fashioned, about a fictional encounter between the two musical titans, is a thin, unbelievable affair that ultimately plays like dueling episodes of Biography...Director Stafford Arima indulges the script's penchant for sentimentality far too often.

Just Shows To Go You C-
(Patrick Lee) The situation, which has “The King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin paying an initially desperate but ultimately inspirational visit to songsmith Irving Berlin, is contrived and the dialogue is often clunky. (Here’s one groaner: “Maybe you can turn that Tin Pan Alley tin into something greater than gold!”) Yet, when he’s not heavy-handedly making the case for art over commerce, playwright Mark Saltzman is on to a theme that is hard to resist: art lives longer than the artist

The Daily News D+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) A revisionist Wikipedia entry dressed up as a play...Mark Saltzman...has packed his show with snippets of the composers' music (which is good), but too often what it delivers is a superficial history lesson and an earful of corn (not so good)...Stafford Arima, who brought inventive vigor to the mock boy-band musical "Altar Boyz," fails to inject vitality in this staging for the Roundabout. Too bad, since the show, the first musical production at the Laura Pels, starts off promisingly as wanna-be songwriters pitch tunes to Berlin and his publishing partner. The scene had the bouncy energy of a Keystone Kops-era "America's Got Talent." After that, this "Rag" had pretty much wrung itself dry.

New York Post D
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) This 12-year-old "play with music" is plagued with well-meaning didacticism...At times, it feels as if we're taking an audioguide tour of the new "Dinosaurs of American Music" wing at the Museum of Natural History. Which is totally fine if you're out with a school group, but frustrating if you want a little more than educational dioramas.

Associated Press D
(Michael Kuchwara) A soggy, inert examination of what made these musical masters tick...As concocted by Mark Saltzman, this turgid hybrid revolves around a fictional meeting between the two men. But their coming together doesn't offer much insight into either one, although Saltzman tries to drum up some dramatic conflict in between songs and the superficial presentation of facts from each of their lives...There is a relentless quality to the acting, particularly among the supporting players who are loud and surprisingly cartoonish. Yet Therriault manages a moment or two of poignancy when he transforms himself into an elderly Berlin. The transformation is a reminder of the actor's innate physicality, most prominently on display in his portrayal of the Gollum in the ill-fated Toronto and London stage productions of "The Lord of the Rings"...The evening's fleeting moments of pleasure are provided by its musical interludes.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) Dusty, predictable...The play isn’t, and doesn’t want to be, about the hearts and souls of Berlin and Joplin. It wants to nudge around the border of art and commerce and ask whether a work can ever be a legitimate success if it doesn’t embrace one without the other. This is a difficult approach to make theatrical - forget about entertaining or moving - and Saltzman doesn’t make it easier by treating the characters as little more than robotic avatars...Everything else is too calculated to be enjoyable in any real way. Director Stafford Arima, who brought nonstop jolts of cleverness to the musical Altar Boyz, has provided a lot of static stage pictures that capture all the turgid enthusiasm of Saltzman’s writing.

Village Voice D
(Michael Feingold) If you're unfamiliar with the two composers' lives and works, the inherent falsity of Saltzman's stodgy, static saga does no more harm than the average soggy script for a 1940s MGM songwriter biopic. The more you know of the realities involved, however, the more irritated you're likely to get. The actors aren't to blame: In supporting roles, Michael McCormick, James Judy, and Idara Victor considerably outclass their thin material, but Stafford Arima's production injects no excitement into what is basically a faded library lecture with examples. And library lectures should be factual.

Associated Press D-
(Michael Kuchwara)Soggy and inert... The evening's fleeting moments of pleasure are provided by its musical interludes. It's hard not to be uplifted by Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" or Berlin's "Play a Simple Melody," two songs that at least stylistically link the songwriters. "Catchy doesn't happen by accident," says Berlin at one point in the show to an aspiring songwriter. Quite true. And it's a quality that has managed to elude this out-of-tune Tin Pan Alley Rag.

Time Out NY D-
(Adam Feldman) It should be a clash of the titans, but there’s no clash: It’s a mild, respectful trading of biographical information of the titans...An original musical in name only—its hoary devices include a showbiz audition montage and a snippy librarian—The Tin Pan Alley Rag offers a sampler pack of Joplin tunes, but stints on the Berlin. Don’t expect to hear more than a few stingy bars of the great composer’s best-loved songs...The main actors do fine with the little they are given.

The New York Times F
(Charles Isherwood) If the figures in wax museums could walk, talk and play the piano, they would closely resemble the leading characters in “The Tin Pan Alley Rag”...This stodgy and soporific show...transforms the lives and careers of two of America’s great popular composers into two hours of theatrical elevator music...The relentless rhythm with which the show shifts between story lines, and between past and present, gives it a metronomic quality that grows increasingly wearying...More problematic are Mr. Saltzman’s tinny dialogue and flat characterizations...The music is, naturally, among the saving graces of the evening, although the numbers are so choppy that you never really get much chance to settle into the infectious charms of Berlin’s songs.

AM New York F
(Matt Windman) Something is wrong when an Off-Broadway play feels like little more than an elementary school history report...While Saltzman started off with a great premise of historical fiction, he uses the play simply as an opportunity to digress into flashbacks on their upbringings and a show off their songs...Michael Therriault manages to be convincing and even charming as the nebbish and socially awkward Berlin. Michael Boatman, on the other hand, comes across merely as rigid as Joplin, failing to portray the character’s pain and suffering in a more fully fleshed manner.

Bloomberg News A- 12; Financial Times B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; The Hollywood Reporter B 10; NY1 B 10; NYer B- 10; Theatermania C+ 8; Variety C- 6; JSTGU C- 6; Backstage C- 6; The Daily News D+ 5; New York Post D 4; Associated Press D 4; Talkin' Broadway D 4; VV D 4; Time Out NY D- 3; AP D- 3; The New York Times F 1; AM New York F 1; TOTAL=119/19=6.26 (C-)

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