by Mark Saltzman
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin & Scott Joplin
Directed by Stafford Arima
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
at the Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street (between 6th & 7th Aves)

Reviewed by David Spencer

If The Tin Pan Alley Rag proves anything, it’s that a strong Theatreworks/USA bio-musical has the capacity to enchant adults as well as kids.

               What’s that you say? Tin Pan Alley Rag is not a Theatre for Young Audences (TYA) show? It’s for grownups?

               Well, yes, boys and girls, er, guys and dolls, uhm rather, men and women, it is being presented as an adult show (albeit one with undeniable family-friendliness)—nonetheless, a TW/USA opus is what The Tin Pan Alley Rag most resembles. Putting aside the bigger cast, the more elaborate production values and a production meant to sit down rather than tour in easy load-strike modules, the tone of it, the somewhat broader-stroke linearity of it, is perfectly in keeping with the way Theatreworks tackles biography. And whether or not such a quality makes it a horse of a different color for you will be a matter of personal taste.

               Put in a nutshell, Mark Saltzman’s play with music plays with a trope writers of historical drama often love, the “meeting that never took place” and posits one between a young, hugely successful pop tune writer, Irving Berlin (Michael Therrialt), focused on the next catchy hook for the next big hit; and Scott Joplin (Michael Boatman) who’s had song hits, but now seeks bringing to light something with a more profound artistic agenda—his ragtime opera Tremonisha. The slender thread of contrivance that brings these two together isn’t important here, save that it serves as excuse enough for the two to compare their histories.

               What is important here is that its performances, under the direction of Stafford Arima, are, in a manner conducent to TYA, conceived to deliver quick, concentrated impact—i.e. Berlin comes right out of the gate a facile, fast-talkin’, streetwise songsmith; Joplin is upon entrance the epitome of the refined, school-and-self-educated “colored man”; and the supporting characters are likewise presented as instantly identifiable archetypes—and the songs from the Berlin and Joplin catalogs are entertainingly delivered as unselfconsciously, unapologetically bald commentary. (Further credit goes to musical director/arranger/orchestrator Michael Patrick Weller and choreographer Liza Gennaro  for expert aiding and abetting.) This TYA-similar technique is different than the broad strokes applied by certain musical comedies (say, Guys and Dolls, Forum or Bye Bye Birdie) because TYA strokes are tacitly designed as a conduit for historical information—but, with luck and skill, so entertainingly that audiences forget (or simply forgive) that the goal is as educational as recreational. I hasten to add, none of this to minimize TW/USA or TYA in general. In collaboration with librettist-director Rob Barron, I was composer-lyricist for two award-winning TW/USA non-historical musicals—new versions of Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables—so I have nothing but respect for this kind of thing done well. But subtlety of intent and indirect or delicate approach are not the stock-in-trade of TYA historicals, and The Tin Pan Alley Rag, though it lightly touches upon more adult themes and anecdotes, gets down to business in just such a transparent manner.

               Still Theatreworks-like polish and efficiency are not easy to achieve nor inconsiderable. But in the service of biographies, they inhabit a very specific kind of entertainment, with an unmistakably pedantic focus. The Tin Pan Alley Rag is just that kind of entertainment—long form, for the kid in all of us. What you have to decide, and only you can, in determining if you’ll attend, is whether the kid in you is still susceptible…or over all that…     

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