If the ragtime musical wowing audiences at the Shubert Theatre sometimes seems to have too much on its mind, the Pasadena Playhouse’s “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” has the opposite problem — it doesn’t have enough. A small, amiable musical about a mythical meeting between ragtime kings Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin, the show is a lightweight examination of the lives of a pair of musical heavyweights, a sort of calorie-free “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
The show’s creator, Mark Saltzman, imagines a weary Joplin (Harrison Page) posing as an agent — why isn’t explained — seeking publication for his magnum opus, the ragtime opera “Treemonisha.” When he plays a few bars for Berlin (David Norona), who was a partner in a music publishing firm as well as its primary hitmaker, Berlin recognizes from his passionate proselytizing that he’s in the presence of the composer.
When Joplin fesses up, they proceed to swap autobiographical flashbacks highlighted by numbers from their songbooks, while sparring over the show’s single kernel of conflict: Joplin thinks Berlin is selling out his talent by pandering to the tastes of the mass audience with his endless stream of catchy ditties (“Some artistic vision usually accompanies your kind of talent,” he says with odd-sounding pompousness), while Berlin, who grew up dirt poor on New York’s Lower East Side, somewhat feebly defends his dedication to songs that sell, pointing to Joplin’s fruitless bid to find publisher and producer for his opera.
There’s not much depth of vision in the storytelling. When Berlin asks Joplin to reveal the origins of the “Maple Leaf Rag,” apparently shrouded in conflicting myths, the story that unfolds is singularly prosaic. The characters of Joplin’s and Berlin’s first wives, both of whom died shortly after their marriages, are sketched to little dramatic effect, other than a twinge of pathos. Most irksomely, the show buys into the argument that Berlin squandered his talent because he didn’t devote himself to “grander” forms of music. That’s baloney, as Berlin’s music attests, and it’s something of an insult to Joplin to put the argument in his mouth.
Norona brings charm and charisma — and a heavy does of ethnic vocal inflections — to his performance as Berlin, and he boasts a sweet, high tenor that’s right for the period music. Page, by contrast, is stilted, and brings no nuance to a role that’s stiffly written to begin with.
Musical director Brad Ellis very deftly provides the piano selections from the Berlin and Joplin catalogs, though the sound is somewhat muffled because the piano is sunk into the stage. Given Alan Bailey’s stylized if somewhat uninspired staging, with performers trooping on and off to bring to life the musical memories, the piano could easily have been placed somewhere more acoustically comfortable.