Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Tin Pan Alley Rag

Irving Berlin wrote some of the most beautiful, romantic songs of all time. Scott Joplin’s innovative jazz had rhythms that roused the spirit. So how could The Tin Pan Alley Rag, Mark Saltzman's musical play about a imaginary meeting between these two great artists, be so completely lacking in beauty, romance and rhythm?

The production comes off as if it’s still in the blocking stage. The actors seem to be mentally saying, “OK, this is where I stand now” and “This is when I sing.” There’s no fluidity. Director Stafford Arima has really missed the mark.

I had thought before I went that at least if the show wasn’t good the music would be, but as performed here the songs have little life. Michael Therriault (Berlin) and Michael Boatman (Joplin) do not connect with their characters in any way. They also don’t connect with the wives they loved and lost shortly after marrying. Chemistry is lacking completely between Irving and Dorothy (Jenny Fellner) and Scott and Freddie (Idara Victor).

The smoothest working of the evening involve Beowulf Boritt’s set, which depicts Berlin’s music publishing company in the early years of the 20th century and opens in sections to reveal flashbacks in other locations, creating a feeling of more time and space. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are also effective.

For all the elaborate staging and cast of 12, Rag isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as another show about two musical giants, Miles & Coltrane: Blue (.), which I saw the following night. That simple little show, which is on its way to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, had no set or props, just music and story; since they were good, it was enough.

At Rag’s intermission I was deciding whether I wanted to stay and asked an usher how much longer until the end. When she told me an hour I asked if it got any better in the second act. She said, “I hope so.” You know it’s bad when even a member of the staff can’t be enthusiastic.

 The Tin Pan Alley Rag is at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.,   through Sept. 6. Visit

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