Feature

Stage: The Tin Pan Alley Rag

Playwright Mark Saltzman's bio-musical imagines a meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin.

Laura Pels Theatre New York (212) 719-1300

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“No record exists of a meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin,” said Brendan Lemon in the Financial Times. But that historical fact hasn’t stopped playwright Mark Saltzman from imagining what such a meeting might have been like. Saltzman’s bio-musical opens at Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley offices, where the composer is visited by a “song plugger” claiming to represent the “King of Ragtime.” He wants Berlin to publish the score to an ambitious opera, written by Joplin, called Treemonisha. Normally dismissive of anything that won’t turn a nickel in department-store music aisles, Berlin becomes intrigued when he realizes that the song plugger is actually Joplin himself. What follows is a fun, if “slightly irksome,” tête-à-tête between the two songwriting giants.

“The setup, at least, is inspired,” said Brian Scott Lipton in Theatermania.com. And both actors are a pleasure to spend time with. Michael Thierriault is “properly brash yet sweetly vulnerable as Berlin,” and Michael Boatman’s “elegant” portrayal of Joplin emphasizes the composer’s “world-weariness and sagacity.” But once Berlin realizes he’s speaking to Joplin, the musical turns flat. Director Stafford Arima’s “awkwardly staged” flashbacks undermine the show’s rhythm, while the overly reductive conversations between soulful Joplin and crassly commercial Berlin “have the unpleasant whiff of Obi-Wan Kenobi advising Luke Skywalker.”

Saltzman’s “tinny dialogue” and “wax figure” characterizations at times threaten to turn this into “two hours of theatrical elevator music,” said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. But the musical numbers provide the evening’s “saving grace.” It’s difficult to tamp down the “infectious charms” of Berlin songs such as “I Love a Piano,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “Blue Skies.” It’s also a treat to hear selections from Joplin’s rarely performed opera. One of Joplin’s lessons to Berlin involves syncopation—how, by letting the right hand on the piano “get a little rebellious,” a tune can be made to “fly to a raggy new world.” Unfortunately, the musical itself “never manages to take” such soaring creative flight.

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