Marching on Berlin 

A mating of two musical legends makes for an awkward though charming experiment.

The 12-member cast bursts into one of those old dance sensations.
  • The 12-member cast bursts into one of those old dance sensations.
There are two toe-tapping reasons to seek out the Cleveland Play House's Christmas offering of The Tin Pan Alley Rag. Besides its blissful lack of most things mistletoe, it contains a generous sampling of crisply rendered songs by two of the last century's central popular music innovators, Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin. These songs are skillfully delivered with the jubilant bounce of a cakewalk, and after almost a century, they still retain their kick.

However, to enjoy this revivifying music, one must endure Mark Saltzman's pasteboard script, concerning the imagined encounter of the two geniuses. For every moment of musical exultation, there's a bit of painful exposition.

Back in the days when movie audiences flocked weekly to musicals, the studios found it lucrative to appropriate the lives and careers of well-loved tunesmiths. These made a perfect excuse for an illustrious gallery of studio contract players to trill a catalog of fondly recalled musical memories. To fill the space between production numbers, complex lives were sifted through the grindstone of the Hollywood production code, to emerge with the moral simplicity of a Dick and Jane primer. Tortured figures, whose works were forged in the midst of depression and sexual peccadilloes, were purified into mouthpieces of patriotism and the glory of love for family audiences. The laborious processes of composing were made to look as mundane as baking a pie: Strauss takes a scenic carriage ride through the woods, hears the wind rustling through the trees, and suddenly composes Tales of the Vienna Woods. An improbably heterosexual Cary Grant/Cole Porter notes a leaky faucet, and before a bemused audience can choke down its next kernel of popcorn, he comes up with a throbbing "Night and Day." In similar fashion on the Play House stage, a brash Joplin, endeavoring to stir up a little action at a local juke joint, pulls out his immortal "Maple Leaf Rag." An agitated, recently widowed Berlin is working out his grief on the piano, and in a twinkling, he changes musical history with "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Irving Berlin was popular music's most tenacious optimist. As the nation's musical minstrel, he defined our holidays and our patriotism. Yet, ironically, the creator of "There's No Business Like Show Business" refused to auction his own life story for mass consumption. While every other composer was selling his life to the movies, he tenaciously clung to his privacy; yet death, the great leveler, nullifies all objections, and The Tin Pan Alley Rag, a revue thinly disguised as a book musical, has the paradoxically introverted extrovert Berlin making his long-delayed debut as a character.

Then there's Scott Joplin as the basso-voiced black genius, cursed by fate and prejudice to an early grave, trying to persuade Berlin to produce his opera, Treemonisha. As in the recent Broadway musical Ragtime, this work tries to configure historical figures as archetypes: the doomed black man, striving for his dignity in a new form of music, and the Jewish immigrant, who achieves the American dream through the same music. This newfangled ragtime is the embodiment of an emerging homegrown culture, the syncopated break from the old world.

Whereas Ragtime used its bold score and choreography to dramatize an epic of assimilation, The Tin Pan Alley Rag lacks the breadth and scope to go beyond an endearing scrapbook of old songs.

Its fundamental conceit -- the pairing of Berlin and Joplin -- is arbitrary and phony. In spite of imposed parallels (the early suffering, a dead first wife, and the forging of a new musical style), their supposed effect on one another has a hollow ring. It would have been almost as logical to imagine a kinship between Ethel Merman and the führer, based on their abrasive personalities and matching wills of iron.

Despite such deficiencies, the evening is a privileged sample of turn-of-the-century show business. Fred Berman as Berlin brings life to a one-dimensional role with his plucky, Yiddish-inflected ardor. He's a complete package: He sings, he dances, and he energizes. Complementing Berman's insouciance, Robert Jason Jackson imbues his rag king with a sometimes solemn, sometimes wry dignity. He gives the musical an emotional heft not in the script.

The entire company, equally proficient at singing, dancing, and acting, keeps the show moving brightly forward. Aside from the musical staging, one of the more human moments is Berlin's courtship and honeymoon with Dorothy Goetz, portrayed with winsome charm by Betsy DiLellio. Standing out as a sultry cabaret owner and grief-stricken mother, Janelle Anne Robinson takes the evening beyond revue into the verisimilitude of cultural history. Karen Gardner, as Joplin's wife Freddie, provides some of the most affecting moments.

Thanks to director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett's crafty re-creation of period dance, there is an innocent sincerity and fluency. Performers seem to float out of the songwriters' imaginations into the stratosphere, cavorting with the abandon of skilled minions in a sultan's harem. The 12-member cast frequently bursts into century-old dance sensations, making the Turkey Trot and Bunny Hop as saucy as a night in Vegas. The excerpts from Joplin's Treemonisha are exquisitely handled, offering an irresistible sampling of the opera.

The music of Berlin and Joplin remains eternal. Add to that a fervent cast, throw in a joyful presentation, and it's obvious: There's still no business like show business.

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More by Keith A. Joseph


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