Playwright: Mary Kyte,
Mel Marvin, Gary Pearle
At: American Theater Company
Phone: ( 773 ) 929-1031; $25-$30
Runs through: Oct. 12
Before the musical Ragtime, there was Tintypes, a Broadway revue from the 1970s that also portrays American urban life at the turn of the last century. Using archetypal figures of the immigrant, capitalist, socialist, Negro and entertainer, Tintypes features 38 songs, mostly written between 1890 and 1910, to sketch the United States when immigration was at its peak, and we claimed our place as a world power.
The songs are a cornucopia of waltzes, marches, two-steps, rags and traditional tunes by George M. Cohan, Sousa, Victor Herbert, Scott Joplin, Harry Von Tilzer and other top popular composers of the day. A century later, we still sing 'In My Merry Oldsmobile,' 'Bill Bailey,' 'A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,' 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' and 'America The Beautiful' ( words by lesbian Katherine Lee Bates ) . This new production is worth seeing for the music alone, strongly ( if not always beautifully ) sung by the cast of five, and played by a cooking piano-drum-clarinet trio under Michael Descoteaux ( their live pre-show music also is a kick ) .
The trick of Tintypes is that with limited spoken-word material ( chiefly narrative ) , it must make its intellectual and emotional points through songs and staging alone. And that's the rub, as directed and choreographed by Mikhael Tara Garver. The dedicated earnestness of this productionsomething more than mere professionalismis charming at times, but rarely achieves comic or dramatic magic.
When it does, it's powerful, as in the Act I rendition of the Bert Williams song, 'Nobody.' The first great, Black vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star, Williams worked in blackface and played that era's 'coon' stereotype. He buried his unhappy life ( he died at 48 in 1922 ) in humorous songs that left room to read between the lines. Tintypes does just that by turning 'Nobody' from a comic shuffle into a slow and building wail of pain, in a magnificent, spine-tingling performance by huge-voiced Neda Spears.
But there are too few segments like that in this production, in part because Garver downplays the potential for comedy and romance in favor of the political. Notably missingfor those who remember earlier productions of Tintypesis a high comedy sequence on roller skates. In short, heightened contrastwhistful, romantic, funny or stirringis missing, despite Garver's brisk staging. It's nicely done and certainly entertaining, but rarely wonderful.
In addition to Spears, the attractive and agile cast features doe-eyed Patrick Sarb ( dazzling smile ) , staunch John Sterchi, Danielle Treuberg ( deliciously pert as Anna Held ) and Cathryn Wooley ( perfect model of the shirt-waist girl ) . They wear Tatjana Radisic's flavorful period costumes, and perform on Brian Sidney Bembridge's practical yet thematic set featuring a red, white and blue wood platform spanned by a steel bridge suggesting industrial might.