Jacquelyne Salvatore, Michael Meier, Juliana O'Leary; photo: Dan Region
Tintypes: An American Musical, conceived by Mary Kyte with Mel Marvin & Gary Pearle. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Tintypes is a show with a premise, slight but still there, and a collection of American music that ranges from the late 1800s through the first two decades of the twentieth century. A five character musical it rocks the history of that thirty year era on its ragtime heels and touches us with the emotional resources of the day, political, musical, historical. The premise, or concept, is this: a young immigrant arrives in New York and hopes to find a place among the America of his dreams. His voyage takes him through the life and work and amusements of the day and his restless, travelerís soul brings him into contact with the best and most interesting people of his era.
It can be an emotional trip, moving and sometimes even soul-splitting. It can also be seen as an entertainment, pure and simple. While this option removes the tug at the heart-strings, it still leaves a vital revue, an overview of a time when the world seemed simpler, but underneath was just as difficult and convoluted as our own, a century later. It is this second take on the show that is on stage at the Ghent Playhouse for the next two weeks.
Charlie, the new immigrant comes into contact with a blustery New York politician named T.R., a young black woman, descendent of immigrants, or rather imported slaves, whose work ethic cannot be stronger, another immigrant, a woman named Emma who ultimately campaigns for ideals that are not his own and a talented and beautiful woman named Anna, also an immigrant, who makes it big on the New York stage. T.R., or Theodore Roosevelt, not the child of immigrants but rather the direct descendent of the original Dutch settlers of the city when it was Nieuw Amsterdam, represents the American dream for the others. They, in turn, symbolize the future of his country. He sees in them what he himself can never be, the hope for an amalgam America that will withstand the onslaught of world pressures. Collectively, they hold the dream.
This idealism is presented in a collection of nearly 50 songs. There are mimed moments, a few speeches and a few scenes, but the show is eighty-five percent sung and danced. With extraordinary care, and perhaps luck, the company at the Ghent Playhouse does both of those things very well.
Charlie, played with optimism and talent by Michael Meier, meets all four of his future associates almost as soon as he gets off the boat. The sequence, called "Arrivals" tells his story: a young man from Russia with a heavy accent, he wants to be a "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and ends up involved in a stirring, flag-waving rendition of the "Stars and Stripes Forever." The only mistake in presentation in this otherwise well-staged production is the finale of this sequence which died aborning. What should have been an uplifting, driving force went somehow flat and dry. Thankfully the rest of the show fulfilled its mission.
Paul Leyden, as T.R., revealed a very sweet singing voice and a strong on-stage personality. He needs to find a bit more confidence in his stage crossings and look up rather than down at his feet. Other than that, he could probably be elected President on his rendition of Victor Herbertís "I Want What I Want When I Want It." His speeches were perfectly rendered and his resemblance to Roosevelt astounding.
Newcomer to the Ghent Playhouse, Juliana OíLeary, played Emma. Not quite the gripper that the role calls for, she had some lovely moments, particularly in the ensemble playing, and her rally-call to the masses was still effective. Her song, "Jonah Man" was as good as it gets.
A second first-timer for this company, Jacquelyne Salvatore was Susannah. The show calls for a minority character, someone who represents the hard-work of the lower classes climbing upward into a majority stockholder in the American future. Salvatore does this with a subtlety and sweetness that works wonders against the bolder strokes of the other players. Her singing is sure and and pretty and every time she begins to work herself into an emotional state, she finds the right place in the lyric to pull back, reserve the power and make her point. In Bert Williams classic song, "Nobody" she tells us who she was and in her second act songs she delivers the goods with grace and skill.
It is Stephanie Tanaka in the role of Anna, who becomes Ziegfeld star and wife Anna Held, who makes the strongest impression. Since her debut as the bus passenger in "The Trip to Bountiful" some years back this artist has grown and matured into a local luminary. Tanaka handles the comedy of this role with aplomb and the songs with a musical ability that allows her to sing high notes with finesse and to still take comic potshots at singers who make the attempt to sing those notes without the ability and talent. She jolts us back and forth between these images brilliantly, giving us both sides of the American dream of stardom.
Detwiler has deftly staged the show with clever touches, among them the most difficult assemblage of soapbox oraters, a complex moment for the company where the spoken word needs to be carefully orchestrated for maximum impact. Director and cast build this beautifully, leading into an extraordinary choral delivery of "We Shall Not Be Moved."
But Tintypes is really Charlieís story and Charlie disappears into a generic "other man" who ventures into and out of relationships, jobs, homelessness and an affiliation with all of his "American" friends. He loses his accent and his identification with his homeland and his chosen country too quickly. Meier does well with what he has been given, but we lose emotionally, just a bit, as he loses himself in his new non-identity.
The production is nicely designed by Benjamin Heyman, Beth Lawton, Joanne Maurer and Vivian Wachsburger. Projections of period photographs lend a certain credence to the production, but donít pay too much attention to them; some of them are way out of period and that becomes intrusive and annoying.
Tintypes, small photographs of people in another time, is always a worthwhile experience. Where else can you find out how Panama was created and for what selfish motivations while still enjoying a delightful tour through the music of a nationís past? See it while you can and remember what you must.
Tintypes plays at the Ghent Playhouse, located just off Route 66 in Ghent, New York, through April 1. Tickets range in price from $12 to $20 and the box office can be reached at 518-392-6264. Memberships and season tickets are available. You can also go to their website at www.ghentplayhouse.org.