When I was about 5, one of my favorite things to do was to pop in an 8 track and make up dance routines. Often times I’d dance until I could hardly breathe. That’s right, go ahead and laugh as you imagine a spastic little barefoot girl, her red-haired ringlets bouncing about to Queen, the Beatles, John Denver and even the score from the film The Sting. The latter as you may know, is a score of Scott Joplin tunes and those songs have left an indelible mark on my heart. I very much associate those sequence of notes and syncopation with my youth, with freedom, with innocence and with creative individuality. It was for Scott Joplin that I was particularly intrigued by The Tabard Theatre Company’s play Tin Pan Alley Rag.
Tabard is traditionally very much about unique stories and a good story is definitely told here. The play cleverly asks (and answers) the question “what if Scott Joplin had met Irving Berlin.” A great question and a pretty good answer. The story is without a doubt interesting. Both historical figures are indeed, interesting and both believably portrayed. Irving in particular was a charming combination of prodigy and perfectionist, and a real joy to watch. The parallels of Berlin and Joplin’s lives were fascinating to watch unfold too as were their contrasting upbringings, opportunities and personal philosophies. Though I was very familiar with Joplin’s music I wasn’t knowledgably about Irving Berlin’s nor did I know much about either man’s actual history and so I left with my curiosity definitely piqued and a commitment to do further research on these musical pioneers.
Berlin’s business partner gave a standout performance, skillfully avoiding what could have been a one-dimensional, comical tough-guy stereotype and giving us a genuine understanding of the business side of a creative duo. He seemed at ease in that space, at the piano, and in the moment, able to give us a bit of showman drama when appropriate, but keeping it grounded in the play’s reality.
The rest of the ensemble was mostly axillary and neither stellar nor atrocious providing chuckles and smirks mostly here and there. The show’s technical elements weren’t something to write home about either, but certainly set a believable canvas for the story to unfold on.
My main challenge with this show was primarily in the inconsistency of both the music and the musical portrayal. A show about music needs to emphasize the greatness of that music and honestly, it has to be perfect, which admittedly is not an easy task. In my opinion you either you must have the actors play the music (perfectly) or you have someone play it for them (perfectly) and they pretend to play. I loved seeing those piano’s on stage but the Joplin tunes were not played without mistakes, noticeable ones. I could easily have suspended my belief in seeing the actors not actually play the piano if 1) the music is played flawlessly and 2) it’s set up in the beginning as the device and done consistently all the way through. I was distracted and confused as it appeared that Joplin was sometimes playing and sometimes piano-synching. Even in the opening scene an actor would start to mime play at the piano and then get up and sing…no one on stage playing or pretending to play for him. It looked disjointed and sounded disjointed and that detraction really cost me my love for this otherwise unique and enjoyable story.
Despite that one glaring flaw, this is an appealing, entertaining and educational show that explores the blurry line between making music that will make a living and making music that will make a life. 3 ½ stars for this story that serves up a wonderful dialogue of what ifs between two gifted and important musical miracle workers. Tin Pan Alley Rag plays through April 22nd at the Theatre on San Pedro Square in Downtown San Jose.