note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
TR and others … Jim Ansart
Emma Goldman and others … Sarah Consentino
Charlie and others … Tom Dinger
Susannah and others … Yolanda Minor
Anna Held and others … Kaja Schuppert
Since 11 September 2001, productions of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN have been popping up like mushrooms to comfort the American people; here’s an equally uplifting slice of Americana: that near-forgotten musical, TINTYPES, now happily playing at the historic Vokes Theatre --- a true marriage of hand (musical) and glove (theatre).
TINTYPES is a tune-filled panorama; a musical melting pot; the Great American Songbook come to life. It offers snapshots tintypes, if you will of America in its last Age of Innocence (the twenty years or so before World War I). There is no libretto per se --- the show being composed primarily of songs from the ragtime era --- though real and fictional characters do weave together various threads: Theodore Roosevelt (“TR”) who goes from Rough Rider to President (storming Panama with a child’s bucket and shovel to dig his Canal); the anarchist Emma Goldman; Anna Held, the glamorous first wife and leading lady of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld; Susannah, Ms. Held’s maid and representative of the downtrodden minorities; and, especially, Charlie, a Russian-Jewish emigrant whose wide-eyed wanderings take him from Ellis Island to becoming a photographer at show’s end. Mary Kyte, along with Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, has cleverly arranged the songs not into scenes but, rather, themes: emigrants coming to America; the invention of the Light Bulb and the Automobile; the harsh working conditions of unionless factories; the glorification of the American Woman via the Ziegfeld Follies; the filthy rich versus the filthy poor; Vaudeville as a popular art form. TINTYPES is sweet but never sticky; nostalgic but clear-eyed; its gentle satire often comes from the interpretation or blending of songs (Roosevelt and Goldman ironically clash in “What It Takes to Make Me Love You --- You’ve Got It”; Anna Held chirps about wedded bliss in “It’s Delightful To Be Married!” but soon sees the light in the two-timing “Fifty-Fifty”; etc.); at other times, the songs simply speak, uh, sing for themselves (Susannah’s tragicomic “Nobody”). The show runs on a bit longer than it should and is decidedly wart-free (there are no “coon” songs, for example) --- still, it’s a delightful entertainment.
And the delight is doubled seeing TINTYPES nestled in the arms of the little Vokes Theatre, itself born in the same era (1904). Placed in a modern theatre and overly miked, TINTYPES might come off as cold and specimen-like; here, its very artificiality beautifully blends with the Voke’s gilt bow-knots over the proscenium arch, its front curtain of pastoral design, its side boxes and curving balcony, not to mention its yellowing photographs and programs that populate the walls as testimony to its illustrious past. Old-time melodramas and operettas would not be mocked here, no more than would a Shakespeare play performed in an imitation Globe or the Greek tragedians in an outdoor arena --- the correct theatre environment can aid greatly in helping an audience fully appreciate a no-longer-contemporary play or musical.
In less skilled hands, TINTYPES would quickly become a series of turns (the characters enter, sing, and exit to prepare for their next number), but director Joanne Powers has seamlessly blended and sculpted those clockwork entrances, exits and all-around movement so that “TR” & Company are always dancing even when they aren’t, and she has come up with many unforgettable images, from the stunning curtain-raiser where emigrants reverently gaze upon the Statue of Liberty while the gentle lapping of the ocean instantly transports the audience back in time, to the moving near-finale where a soloist performs “Toyland” in a spotlight, clutching two American flags to her side and becoming, for a few breathless minutes, a more human (and humane) Lady of the Harbor. Stephen McGonagle has designed a nearly bare stage that is just right and has managed to tuck away the orchestra somewhere backstage; Michael Hirsh’s lighting effects are simple as (apple) pie but no less satisfying; and Terri McDonald and Joanne Powers’ costumes are nicely evocative.
TINTYPES is definitely an ensemble piece; each performer gets numerous chances to shine on his or her own, yet all must quickly blend together with no sharp corners or bumps to upset the panorama. Happily, Ms. Powers has a superb quintet to do her bidding, easily one of the year’s best ensembles: her two men and three women sing like angels, move nimbly, are adept at light satire (both spoken and mimed) and seem to be having fun, too (what a relief it must be to perform SONGS for a change instead of today’s anthems!). To single anyone out for extra praise is impossible: each is a different instrument, played by a virtuoso; thus, hosannas to Jim Ansart (the cello), Sarah Consentino (the snare drum), Tom Dinger (the flute), Yolanda Minor (the trombone) and Kaja Schuppert (the violin) for the endless (onstage) pleasure they give.
That is the good news. The bad news is, this delightful production will be gone in just a few weeks.