The Tin Pan Alley Rag -- Theater Review

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Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin never actually met, but playwright Mark Saltzman imagines the results if they did to charming and moving effect in "The Tin Pan Alley Rag."

Using the music of these titanic 20th century American composers for its score, the show occasionally suffers from a tendency toward clunky speechifying. But anyone remotely interested in American popular music will find much to enjoy in this spirited production from the Roundabout Theatre Company.

The play is set in Berlin's music publishing office in New York's famed Tin Pan Alley, circa 1915. The Russian-born Berlin already has achieved great success with his top-selling ditties featuring such titles as "Yiddisha Nightingale" and "Moishe (Abie) Sings an Irish Song," but his truly great songwriting years still are ahead of him.

One night, when Berlin (Michael Therriault) and his business partner (Michael McCormick) are working late, they are visited by a dignified black man (Michael Boatman) claiming to represent Joplin, the King of Ragtime, and his latest work, the opera "Treemonisha."

It doesn't take long for it to be revealed that the visitor is actually Joplin himself. Soon, he and the admiring Berlin are trading stories about their past struggles, presented as a series of flashbacks (fluidly staged by director Stafford Arima). Besides their love of music, the two men have something else in common: Both lost their young first wives early in their marriages, resulting in deep sorrow that also led to artistic inspiration.

The show's episodic structure proves somewhat stilted, and it too often resorts to the forced doling out of biographical tidbits. But what saves the evening from its schematic tendencies is the music, both in the generous selections from the composers' output that are presented and in the depiction of the love of making it that they share. This is particularly evident in their wonderful duet on Berlin's "Play a Simple Melody," with the two men delivering Berlin's dazzling counterpoint melodies in joyful fashion.

Therriault is wonderfully energetic and engaging as the supremely ambitious Berlin, while Boatman lends a moving dignity to Joplin, who is desperate to have his magnum opus published and produced. Adding fine support are McCormick as Berlin's aggravated partner and Idara Victor as the ill-fated young wife who would provide the inspiration for the title character of Joplin's opera.

Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York (Through Sept. 6)
Presented by: The Roundabout Theatre Company
Cast: Michael Boatman, Michael Therriault, Randy Aaron, Derrick Cobey, Jenny Fellner, Rosena M. Hill, James Judy, Mark Ledbetter, Michael McCormick, Erick Pinnick, Tia Speros, Idara Victor
Playwright: Mark Saltzman
Music-lyrics: Irving Berlin & Scott Joplin
Director: Stafford Arima
Choreographer: Liza Gennaro
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Walter Trarbach
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