Tin Pan Alley RagReviewed by Suzy Berkowitz
The Tin Pan Alley Rag, written by Mark Saltzberg, is based on a true story about two well known "Kings of Rag". Taking place in the early 1900s, this play spans a mere several days, its contents ranging from flashbacks to musical hits. Irving "Izzy" Berlin, played by Michael Themault, is a modern, cocky musician who writes songs solely for their profit. Earning himself the title "King of Rag" because of the hits he publishes, Izzy believes he knows everything about music, though he is only 28. Into his office, seeking the publication of his new opera walks Scott Joplin, played by Michael Boatman, weak, frail and reaking of rag. Famous for his catchy compositions and sheer muscal talent, Joplin himself wore the crown as "King of Rag" years ago, but is now too consumed with his new opera to write hit songs. Money-hungry Izzy, however, sees meeting Mr. Joplin as an opportunity to squeeze out of him the genius methods behind hit songwriting, but ends up learning that an appreciation for the song itself is more valuable than the profit it earns. Connecting through their love of music and the women who inspired them to compose it, Izzy and Mr. Joplin both use their pasts to help create their present.
This two-act play took the audience back to the days when ragtime was alive, showing how it had grown and changed throughout the years. Learning the stories of these two composers and their differing backgrounds was vital to understanding the motives behind their music. At least half of the time the actors were onstage was spent flashing back to when their musical careers had just begun, an interesting and unusual choice for playwright Saltzberg to make. By watching nearly the majority of the show being acted in retrospect, the audience was better able to understand the history of both ragtime and the two main characters. The minimal set changes during those flashbacks helped differentiate the flashbacks from the story's current plot, a wise decision on the technical crew's part.
The actor playing Mr. Joplin had a very calm demeanor, with a quiet kind of confidence that I found myself gravitating towards, whereas the actor playing Izzy was constantly edgy and nervous. It seemed as though Michael Themault had trouble removing his character from Izzy's naturally jumpy persona, because I felt a lack of sincerity on his part during the sentimental moments of the show. His personality was so high strung that the more quiet, calm scenes seemed almost forced and artifical. Perhaps this arkward vibe was one that Themault purposely created in an effort to emphasize how uncomfortable his character was with outwardly expressing his emotions, or perhaps he simply lacks versatility as an actor.
One particular aspect of the show's stage blocking that I found comforting was that, while the surrounding set may have changed throughout the story, the two pianos remained center stage. The significance of these instruments traveled beyond the house itself; they are also present on the playbill's cover, representing the means by which the two very different men were able to connect.
In summation, The Tin Pan Alley Rag is a sharp story about two talented musicians, the differences that they share, and the impact that one night of rag in retrospect left them with.
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