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Theater Review

Nostalgia Glows in 'Tintypes'

Rubicon Theatre revives a revue celebrating Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin and others.

September 27, 2002|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Where so many musical revues focus on retrospectives of particular composers or genres, "Tintypes" tackles a more expansive theme: the birth of the modern American spirit, as reflected in popular songs from the turn of the 20th century.

Exploring that pivotal era through music was a shrewd choice on the part of Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, who created "Tintypes" in 1980. Even when the more familiar tunes raise the specter of cliche, Broadway-caliber voices from an ensemble keep the piece fresh and resonant in Bonnie Hellman's handsomely staged revival for Ventura's Rubicon Theatre.

An ensemble rendition of George M. Cohan's "The Yankee Doodle Boy" frames this plunge into post-industrial sensibilities expressed in works by Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin and others. In subjects spanning politics to courtship to entertainment, the mind-set is recognizably modern. Yet there's a charming innocence in the songs' awe and wonder at possibilities opened up by revolutionary technology ("Electricity"), mobility ("Meet Me in St. Louis") and changing social values ("It's Delightful to Be Married!").

The expansiveness of the American theme presents inherent structural challenges. To enhance continuity, each of the five performers has a recurring primary character, along with supplemental roles as needed for narrative embellishment. Opening the evening on a whimsical note, Eric J. Olson's Russian Jew epitomizes the foibles, obstacles and opportunities facing the immigrant population that shaped our society during the last century; his comic timing helps redeem the second act's overly long vaudeville salute.

As an archetypal first-generation free-born black American woman, "Ragtime" veteran Darlesia Cearcy appropriately belts out Joplin's "The Ragtime Dance"; through sheer inflection, her renditions of "Nobody" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" ache with the fresh wounds of slavery and a piercing reminder of how far short we've fallen on the race question to this day.

Three of the primary roles are actual historical figures. As Anna Held, the showgirl who married Flo Ziegfeld, Heather Lee's classically nuanced soprano puts witty spins on songs about seduction, marriage and the age-old battle of the sexes.

Tackling the thorny problems of the labor class in "Wait for the Wagon," baritone Greg Zerkle's strutting Theodore Roosevelt radiates indefatigable exuberance as he squares off against Sammy Fishman's firebrand anarchist Emma Goldman, herself a recurring figure in musicals dealing with the period (including "Ragtime"). Not addressed here is the historical curiosity that Goldman's speech in Buffalo inspired the disgruntled factory worker whose shooting of William McKinley put Roosevelt in the White House--a darker connection explored in Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," which also enjoyed a recent revival at the Knightsbridge Theatre (also coincidentally, the same Sousa march used as Teddy's theme here provides the score for the "Assassins" sequence about the attempt on Franklin Roosevelt's life).

"Tintypes" soft-pedals the darker side of Americana, focusing instead on a more inspirational portrait engagingly rendered by a talented cast.

"Tintypes," Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $28-$43. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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