Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Theater Review: The Tin Pan Alley Rag

Location: Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Roundabout Theatre site

Starring: Michael Therriault, Michael Boatman

My Review: With The Tin Pan Alley Rag, the Roundabout Theatre closes an unbelievably lackluster season with not exactly a whimper, but definitely not a bang. And as a testament to how lackluster the season truly was, I couldn’t care less.

The Tin Pan Alley Rag tells the story of a fictitious meeting between two of music’s greatest artists; Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin. Some time around the turn of the century, a late-20-something Berlin is working as a music publisher and allowing would-be musicians to pitch him their new songs for possible purchase. A middle-aged Joplin arrives at his office with a new opera he’s desperate to see performed, but no one is interested in an opera by the “King of Ragtime.” The story switches between this meeting and flashbacks to vignettes from each man’s past, highlighting the parallels in their lives (such as lowbrow beginnings in seedy music halls and falling in love with ill-fated young women). Interspersed with these scenes are performances of each man’s popular tunes, like “Maple Leaf Rag” and “I Love a Piano,” which are the only moments that keep this play with music afloat.

Michael Therriault handles the role of Irving Berlin ably, though at times seems to overdo the “nervous Jew” shtick, and it feels like you’re watching someone impersonating Woody Allen impersonating Berlin. Michael Boatman is more consistent with his cool, proud portrayal of Scott Joplin. The rest of the cast take on multiple roles of various people in Berlin and Joplin’s pasts—mentors, performers, lovers—and each part is done well. But while the performances were good enough to not warrant any specific criticisms, the play still felt…well, too much like a play.

One of the main reasons I enjoy live theater so much is because at a really good production, you eventually get sucked into it and it no longer feels like you’re watching people on a stage; it either feels like you’re observing real life unfolding, or like you’re actually a part of the action. But that moment never came at The Tin Pan Alley Rag. I never once lost myself in a moment and always felt like I was watching actors putting on a show. Every movement seems too labored, every syllable over-enunciated, every flashback and song too orchestrated. I wouldn’t call it a bad play, but it felt like a good college production, where you want to congratulate the cast and crew afterward for putting forth such an eager effort. And while this is acceptable for college productions, it’s not what I’m looking for in professional theater.

Bottom Line: The Tin Pan Alley Rag is as mediocre as mediocre theater can get, with the few highlights being in the performance of Berlin and Joplin’s music. And so closes the current Roundabout Theatre season, and I can rest easy in my decision not to renew my subscription.

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