Music brings history to life

`Tintypes' provides a panorama of American life

Review

November 03, 2006|By William Hyder | William Hyder,special to the sun

A panorama of American life from the 1890s to about 1914, presented against a background of the popular music of that period. That's Tintypes, which Rep Stage is performing through Nov. 19 in Howard Community College's new black box theatre.

Conceived by Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, the show is a mixture of history, social commentary and nostalgia.

The score includes old favorites such as "Meet Me in St. Louis," "In My Merry Oldsmobile," "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home."

There are patriotic songs by George M. Cohan ("The Yankee Doodle Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag") and operetta numbers by Victor Herbert ("Kiss Me Again," "I Want What I Want When I Want It").

Two songs ("Nobody," "When It's All Goin' Out and Nothin' Comin' In") recall the great black performer Bert Williams.

The most powerful influence in the pop music of the time -- ragtime -- is represented by piano rags by Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb and Artie Matthews.

The years covered by the show saw vast social changes in the United States. Immigrants usually had come from the British Isles, with a few from Germany and Scandinavia; now they were coming by the millions from Italy and Eastern Europe, altering America's ethnic makeup.

City people were outnumbering town dwellers and farmers.

Heavy industry was creating oppressive assembly-line jobs. The Spanish-American War offered the United States a chance to become not only a world power but an imperial power.

Tintypes touches lightly on all these subjects. In a series of vignettes, we see immigrants and African-Americans trying to better themselves in the face of social and economic obstacles.

Five talented performers portray a variety of characters in song, mime and spoken lines. Evan Casey plays a young, hopeful Jewish immigrant who keeps turning up throughout the show, sometimes in luck, sometimes not.

Felicia Curry represents the African-American experience.

The script gives her no particular identity, so it is left to Curry to create one and to the director to show her, in pantomime, facing discrimination.

Three of the characters are historical personages. Theodore Roosevelt (vividly portrayed by Gary Hiel) comes over as a caricature, a figure of exaggerated aggressiveness and bombast.

The show's authors use Roosevelt as a symbol of the arrogant aristocrat, indifferent to the needs of the common people. This is historically incorrect. True enough, TR came from the New York gentry, but as president he sided with the ordinary citizen by curbing big business and fighting the trusts.

As a counterbalance to the establishment forces, the script introduces Emma Goldman (Shannon Wollman), a Lithuanian immigrant who preached anarchy and railed against the excesses of the very rich.

Anna Held (Kate Briante) was a vaudeville and operetta star of Polish-French origin who projected a saucy, coquettish image.

Held seems to represent feminism in the show, although given her flirtatious stage persona she is hardly the ideal choice.

As Act II progresses the immigrants become assimilated and the authors abandon their social crusade. The show ends with a vaudeville segment featuring raggy and sentimental songs and some ancient but funny comedy routines.

To their credit, the authors and arrangers treat the music with respect and make no attempt to modernize or burlesque it.

The Rep Stage actors display fine singing voices and, in varying degrees, exhibit the charm and charisma needed to put Tintypes across.

Two pianists (unfortunately not named in the program) provide accompaniment at a pair of upright pianos. Costume designer Denise Umland did well by the actors; she might have given the musicians something better to wear than the cliched old-timey straw hats, vests and shirtsleeves.

Director-choreographer Carole Graham Lehan creates one attractive stage picture after another. In one charming scene, the cast gracefully performs a social dance of the 1910 era.

The script's depiction of history is simplistic, the social commentary is routine and obvious, but the show is fun. People interested in the turn-of-the-century era or its music are bound to enjoy themselves.

Rep Stage presents "Tintypes" through Nov. 19. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, in the black box theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Reservations: 410-772-4900, or www.howardcc.edu/repstage.

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