Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2007
Tintypes is a pleasant little revue of music from the turn of the 20th century. If you have only a passing knowledge of those fascinating decades of American history between the Civil War and World War I, this show will strike you as a nice mélange of music performed by men in spats and ladies in shirtwaists. If you know more, Tintypes comes off as a very weak and misguided attempt to bring those tumultuous years to life.
Luckily, about two decades after Tintypes, which premiered in Washington, DC, in 1979, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns turned E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime into the musical that would definitively present that era on the stage. One reviewer said that watching Tintypes was like seeing Ahrens and Flaherty's musical research for Ragtime come to life on stage.
In Tintypes five performers – an older gentleman who also plays Theodore Roosevelt (Paul Leyden), an older woman who also plays Emma Goldman (Julianna O’Leary), a younger woman who also plays Anna Held (Stephanie Tanaka), a younger man (Michael Meier), and a black woman (Jacqueline Salvatore) – sing, dance, and mime (in the style of a silent movie) nearly fifty songs. An onstage band, headed by Musical Director Richard B. Lapo, Jr., on piano, with Ellen Rizzo (hooray!) on keyboard and David Levow in percussion, provide nearly continuous accompaniment to Tom Detwiler’s snappy staging and Rick Roswell’s pedantic choreography.
The good news is that this ensemble sounds great together, and that the various strengthes and weaknesses of the cast balance each other out nicely. O’Leary’s voice isn’t quite what it used to be, but her stage presence and acting ability make up for that. Tanaka looks lovely as ever and sings sweetly, but is fairly limited in her range as an actress. Salvatore is rather wooden, but her singing voice is tremendous. Leyden is a fine singer and a passable actor. Meier is the weak link in the show, until he kicks up his heels (literally) and reveals an obvious dancing talent that is going unused in this production.
Detwiler and his cast play Tintypes for sweet nostalgia, which is fine, except that it gives an inaccurate picture of the times in which the show is set. I am acutely aware of this because, since last August when a box of old black and white photographs of ragtime-era celebrities came into my possession, I have been spending a lot of time learning about the people and the era Tintypes depicts and I can tell you that there is more to this music than meets the eye. I hope in the ensuing paragraphs that I can bring some historical depth and regional interest to the material to enhance your experience at Ghent.
In the opening number of Flaherty and Ahrens’ Ragtime the nice white family sings nostalgically for a time when “there were no negroes and there were no immigrants.” Of course, there was no such time and the white Europeans themselves were the immigrants not too many generations back, but during the years between the Civil War and World War I America suddenly had to confront its new identity as a multi-cultural, multi-racial society, and, as always, popular entertainment reflected that struggle. Comedy was largely ethnic and not at all what we, today, would consider “politically correct.” There is a segment in Tintypes alas the weakest in this production, which attempts to replicate a bit of vaudeville, and it is at least true to the times by containing many jokes that make us cringe today, but which were an important part of the assimilation process then. If people of all ethnic backgrounds could see themselves, and laugh at themselves, on the stage, then they were on the way to being accepted as “real Americans.”
Popular entertainment was largely segregated then. White audiences rarely saw “authentic negroes” on stage, only whites in blackface. And blacks didn’t see white performers at all in their all-black shows and theatres. One of the first performers to break that color barrier was Bert Williams (1874-1922) who was the first black headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies. Three of his songs are featured in Tintypes – Nobody (1905) Williams’ signature number, written with Alex Rogers, When It’s All Goin’ Out and Nothin’ Comin’ In (1902) and She’s Gettin’ More Like the White Folks Every Day (1901) both written with his long-time partner George Walker. Salvatore’s rendition of Nobody was the highlight of this production for me – powerfully delivered and speaking with raw emotion about the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” which widened dramatically during the dawn of the 20th century.
Another African-American musician well represented in Tintypes is Scott Joplin, whose rags underscore some of the pantomimed scenes.
The early decades of the 20th century were a prolific time for American theatre, although the high demand for entertainment meant that quality took a back seat to quantity. Dozens and dozens of musical comedies, operettas, music hall shows, burlesques, and vaudeville entertainments opened on Broadway every year and then took off on nationwide tours. The infamous Syndicate (E. F. Proctor was among their ranks) was gaining control of the touring routes and competition for top name performers was fierce. Tintypes features plenty of music from the Broadway greats of the day – George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, Victor Herbert, and Glen MacDonough.
Early in the show the cast belts out I Don’t Care (1905) by Jean Lenox and Harry C. Sutton, which was the signature number for Eva Tanguay (1879-1947), once the highest paid performer in vaudeville, who appeared at the Cohoes Music Hall early in her career and whose ghost is said to haunt the area just off stage left in the balcony there. If you go to the Music Hall today you can get a snack at the Eva Tanguay Café and hum a few bars of I Don’t Care in her honor.
In fact many of the songs in Tintypes probably reverberated through Pittsfield’s Colonial, the Mahaiwe, Cohoes, Hubbard Hall, and all the other regional performance spaces of that era which are still standing today – and the many of happy memory which are not.
Anna Held (1872-1918), who Tanaka plays with great charm, was born in Poland and started her career in Yiddish theatre in London after her family fled there to escape the pogroms. She became a star in Paris, where she also married, gave birth to her only child, and converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Held would market herself as an exotic Parisienne for the rest of her life. Ziegfeld met Held in London in 1896 used the media to build her up so that she was already a celebrity by the time she arrived in the States. Held is widely credited with making Ziegfeld a success and coming up with the formula for his Follies. Onstage she was more a personality than a performer, but she was popular with audiences if not with the critics and had a successful career in vaudeville. Tintypes features a song It’s Delightful to Be Married for which Held wrote the lyrics, although ironically she was never legally married to Ziegfeld because her adopted faith did not permit divorce and remarriage. In 1909 he threw her over for Lillian Lorraine and then Billie Burke, who he actually married in 1914.
The set, designed by Benjamin Heyman, manages to squeeze the three-piece band under its own mini-gazebo and a revolving piece featuring three sets – notably Anna Held’s bathroom where Tanaka lounges attractively in one of Held’s high-publicized milk baths while being interviewed by the press. The costumes, by Joanne Maurer and Vivian Wachsburger, are attractive and serviceable, but not really historically accurate. Held, for instance, was a famous “tight-lacer” meaning that she wore extraordinary corsets which both created and accentuated her famed 18-inch waist. How anyone could sing in one of those things is a mystery, and while several generations of women did so successfully, I do not blame Tanaka, Maurer and Wachsburger for steering clear of that painful fashion decision.
Maurer and Wachsburger do a nice job of turning Leyden into Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919) with the simple addition of a safari jacket, hat and glasses. I never believed for a minute that O’Leary was the famous Lithuanian-born anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940), and that whole history lesson fell flat as a result.
Someday some clever producer will present Tintypes and Ragtime as a package, because they compliment each other well. In the meantime, this production of Tintypes at Ghent is a pleasant way to spend an evening or afternoon at the theatre, as it offers a few fleeting glimpses of a fascinating time in American history.
Tintypes runs weekends through April 1, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007