This will bring you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week: THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG and HAUNTED HOUSE.
I went to see the new off Broadway musical “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, the day after the dreadful, dismissive reviews came out in the major papers. Roundabout has a captive audience of subscribers most of whom, I am sure, were aware that the show they were about to see was a turkey. Talk about a tough house! Then, the show began, and we were provided with Yet Another reminder that just because it’s in the newspaper, that doesn’t mean it’s true.
The show imagines an encounter between a young, successful songwriter named Irving Berlin and an over-the-hill Scott Joplin. Towards the end of his life, Joplin tried without success to get his ragtime opera “Treemonisha” produced, making the rounds of music publishers in New York. What if he dropped by Irving Berlin’s publishing company in W. 28th St., known to the trade as “Tin Pan Alley?” This never happened, of course. Neither did a meeting between Queen Elizebeth I and Mary Queen of Scots but the critics had no problem with this in last season’s Broadway production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Apparently, they were willing to cut a Recognized Classic some slack; whereas they jumped all over Mark Saltzman, author of the book for The Tin Pan Alley Rag.
Saltzman uses this device to explore the lives of both Joplin and Berlin, cleverly incorporating their music as he does so. He juxtaposes young Berlin as a man who sees himself as a hit factory and the older Joplin as a man who has high aspirations. As each man reveals himself to the other, the book (and the set) opens up to show us scenes from both men’s pasts; Berlin’s, as an impoverished immigrant from Russia, forced to go to work at a very young age to support his family after his father died, becoming a singing waiter on the Bowery and, eventually, getting discovered; Joplin’s, as a cathouse piano player, also getting discovered. Both men had a lot in common, not the least of which was the loss of a wife to death shortly after both were married.
The cast, under Stafford Arima’s inventive and almost cinematic direction, is uniformly superb; particularly the two leads, Michael Therriault as Berlin and Michael Boatman as Joplin. “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” is fascinating history lesson, chock-full of wonderful music. I found it engrossing and often downright poignant, particularly at the end. As I went up the aisle afterwards I heard several people exclaim, “Can you believe this got bad reviews?!?” Well, believe it. But don’t always believe what you read in the newspapers. Just remember, critics don’t usually have your best interests primarily in mind when they write their opinions.
I rather enjoyed Daniel Roberts’ “Haunted House,” produced by Audax Theatre Group at the Irish Arts Center. Audax is a group new to me. Their history indicates that their raison d’etre appears to be to produce Roberts’ plays, directed by his partner in Audax, Brian Ziv. Fortunately, both are good enough that this one is worth your while.
It’s about a strange family living on the Jersey shore who a creepy horror attraction out of their house. Their “ride,” though, has seen better times when a young web reporter arrives to do a story on it, followed by her snarky boss (who is also her boyfriend). The pater familias is an odd man who dresses always as a ghoul. His son, who works for his as a sort of handyman, is mentally-challenged. His daughter, a chain restaurant waitress, wants to get the heck out of Jersey with her brother with whom, it turns out, she is having an affair. This does sound rather convoluted, but it all does wind up making fractured sense in the end. Given that this is a showcase, the performances are pretty good. My babe of the evening thought the play was hokey. We agreed to disagree.
THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
HAUNTED HOUSE. Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com. 212-868-4444