There are a few famous biographical musicals that come to mind – Gypsy, Funny Girl and Annie Get Your Gun . Tin Pan Alley Rag which has just opened at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre at Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is not in their league. It’s in a league of its own. It’s a double bio-musical. If Irving Berlin were marketing this show he’d say that you were getting two shows for the price of one.
As written by Mark Saltzman, Tin Pan Alley Rag brings together two very different but very similar men – Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin – both considered to be a musical genius. Both considered the King of Ragtime. Did they ever meet? Chances are they did not. But it’s a very interesting way of telling their stories, using their own music and lyrics.
There is no denying the fact that Mr. Berlin liked to write hit songs and to make a lot of money. Mr. Joplin had loftier goals. He wanted to write an opera. It is his desire to get Treemonisha published that brings him to Berlin & Snyder music publishers in Tin Pan Alley where he pretends to be Joplin’s agent.
In a series of flashbacks, where the scenery shifts on turn tables (a very elaborate set by Beowulf Boritt) to take us back to the various locales of where the two men got started we see how each developed his art. It’s done in a somewhat scholarly way. So much information has to be given that the show resembles a Reader’s Digest version of the lives of these two outstanding musicians. But it is very enjoyable.
Before the show started, I overheard a couple of people sitting behind me. They had read some of the reviews and were off put in coming. Perhaps they wouldn’t stay for the second act. Well, they stayed and they were pleasantly surprised. I think you will too if you’d like to invest your time in a different sort of musical.
Michael Therriault as Berlin does a star turn as Irving “Izzy” Berlin. He is confident, brash, funny, charming and sings better than Berlin ever did. He also is called upon, as is Michael Boatman as Joplin, to feign playing one of the two upright pianos on stage. Which they both do magnificently culminating in the Act I finale of Play a Simple Melody – which is pure magic. Mr. Boatman finally lets his stiff façade down to fool someone into thinking he is the black boy that actually writes Berlin’s songs.
Both men suffer the loss of their wives early on and this prompts guilt and sadness and the desire to use those emotions to write “inspired” music. It’s a very humbling and moving aspect brought out about these two giants.
Jenny Fellner as Dorothy Goetz, Berlin’s non-Jewish wife, brings a warmth and humor and fine voice to her portrayal. As Berlin’s partner, Teddy Snyder Michael McCormick has just the right punch. And Mark Ledbetter, playing a variety of roles delivers song and dance in a very likable, professional manner. Rosena M. Hill is a delight. As is Idara Victor. The rest of the cast is winning and they all deserve to be seen in this informative and entertaining duo bio musical skillfully directed by Stafford Arima. The Act II montage of Berlin aging to a medley of his hit tunes is especially noteworthy.