Perhaps when the patriotic revue “Tintypes,” a musical celebration the turn of the 19th century, was selected for the current Vokes season, everyone was focused on honoring a nation attacked on Sept. 11. Current events can change the way any production is perceived, and today the show, although feelingly delivered by five sprightly and talented singers (Jim Ansart, Sarah Consentino, Tom Dinger, Yolanda Minor and Kaja Schuppert), telegraphs a somewhat simplistic view of America.
The Vokes production of “Nine,” the show that actually ran right after Sept. 11 and had nothing whatever to do with America, nevertheless packed a more powerful -- even patriotic -- wallop simply because of what we were all feeling at the time. Quite unexpectedly, it managed to celebrate national resilience and the power of the arts in the face of tragedy.
“Tintypes,” a bit superficial against the backdrop of more complex current events, nevertheless features interesting aspects. Especially noteworthy are the ways the performers have breathed new life into songs by Victor Herbert, among others, and the skill with which the actors pantomime Chaplinesque scenes to the rhythm of Scott Joplin rags.
Some of the “Tintypes” snapshots of history offer contemporary resonance. Consider the perennial American delight at the wonders of technology (the miraculous light bulb). And what about a rough-riding president’s obsession with building a great canal? First we see Teddy Roosevelt denouncing McKinley (“McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair”); then we see him charging into the Spanish-American War, ever so confident of saving the world. Next he arranges to seize land from an uncooperative Columbian government and set up a puppet country called Panama in order to access an area of commercial and strategic value. (Teddy sings Herbert’s “I Want What I Want When I Want It.”)
“Tintypes” opens on a still life of immigrants in steerage gazing at the approaching Statue of Liberty. The audience gets the sense of waves lapping against a ship’s hull, also the sense of hope. Then, against a series of black and white slides, the 1890s and 1900s events are brought to life through music.
The “Tintypes” performers portray immigrants coming to Ellis Island, Emma Goldman on her soapbox, a “French” Ziegfeld star from Indiana and many more of the people who made America a place of optimism and fear, spirituality and materialism, opportunity and injustice. Although certain songs that today sound racist were uncomfortable to listen to (“She’s Gettin’ More Like White Folks Every Day”? Ouch), Minor handled the related sketches with calm dignity.
The scene that was the most fun was also the one with the most dialogue, a vaudeville routine. The rubber chicken that wants a raise, the goofy lines (“My sister had twins. A boy and a girl. The girl is called Denise.” “What do you call the boy?” “Da nephew.”) -- everything got laughs.
Overall, there is charm to some of the music from this period, most of it long forgotten. Highlights of the nearly 50 compositions: “What It Takes To Make Me Love You -- You’ve Got It”; “Jonah Man,” a hard-luck tale powerfully delivered by Sarah Consentino; and a series from the vaudeville act, “Hello, Ma Baby, “Teddy Da Roose,” “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?”
Conceived by Mary Kyte, with Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, and originally performed for the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., “Tintypes” was directed and staged with simple choreography by Joanne Powers. Markus Hauck directed the music. Jeffrey Perfect was the producer; Stephen McGonagle did the set design and slide projections; lighting designer was Michael Hirsh; Powers and Teri McDonald handled costume coordination.
The Vokes Theatre, which has launched a campaign for its second century, also has announced a tantalizing list of shows for the coming season: the classic musical “On the Twentieth Century,” Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” also “Proof” and “Incorruptible.” Auditions for the next show, G.B. Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” are May 11 and May 12.
“Tintypes” continues through May 17. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.