Thanks to the stirring musical excerpts sampled from “Treemonisha,” many audience members likely will go directly from “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” to their computers to download Scott Joplin’s rarely performed American opera. But beyond that discovery, the rewards are patchy in this double biotuner, built around a fictitious early-20th century encounter between the King of Ragtime and Irving Berlin. Despite Stafford Arima’s fluid direction, polished design contributions and an able cast, the material is ploddingly episodic and way too elementary in its presentation, never shaping the two composers into three-dimensional figures.
Mark Saltzman’s play with music premiered at Pasadena Playhouse in 1997 and has popped up in various productions on the regional circuit since. It gets deluxe treatment here in a relatively lavish staging in Roundabout’s main Off Broadway space, on a set by Beowulf Boritt that smoothly shuffles the multiple locations and timeframes on three turntables. But the problem is the vehicle, not the telling.
While the show’s principal theme is the eternal balancing act between art and industry, Saltzman explores that dichotomy via a somewhat specious premise. It’s true that much of Berlin’s early work on New York’s fabled street of sheet music publishers was assembly-line production of catchy, often interchangeable tunes calculated to have popular appeal. And it’s not unlikely Berlin was influenced by the unconventional, syncopated rhythms of Joplin’s ragtime music. But to suggest, however fancifully, that one of the greatest composers of the classic American Songbook only evolved from commercial success into work with a more enduring artistic legacy because Joplin nudged him in that direction is reductive.
Dramatic tension is minimal. What there is stems mostly from the efforts of Joplin (Michael Boatman) to persuade Berlin (Michael Therriault) to publish “Treemonisha,” his ambitious, ragtime-flavored 1910 opera about an educated young black woman who rejects cultural superstitions and goes on to become a community leader.
After shopping the project unsuccessfully to publishers and producers, and spending his last dime on a backers’ audition, Joplin turns up in the office Berlin shares with publishing partner Teddy Snyder (Michael McCormick). The encounter serves as a cumbersome frame for the two composers to exchange insights into their lives and work. These episodes materialize with a certain visual grace, thanks to Arima and his design team, but the what-happened-next language is out of a clunky dramatized dissertation.
Berlin stands on the sidelines watching as Joplin steps back into the past to the birth of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” then Joplin becomes the observer as Berlin relives his humble start, singing for nickels in a Lower East Side Irish bar. And so on. Many of the episodes are entertaining, and there are charming moments particularly in Joplin’s recollections. But the halting momentum of each man’s story means neither one of them develops much as a character. Spending much of their stage time half-hidden behind upright pianos, both Boatman and Therriault struggle to emerge out of the stop-start structure of their characters’ narratives.
Saltzman underlines the contrasts and similarities between the two musical prodigies. Joplin was classically trained, while Berlin was self-taught and unable to read music. Both men lost their young wives soon after marrying — Berlin when brash Buffalo gal Dorothy (Jenny Fellner) contracted typhoid while on their honeymoon in Havana; Joplin when the strong-willed inspiration for “Treemonisha,” Freddie (Idara Victor), succumbed to pneumonia while he was on tour. But the recap of these losses is too perfunctory to carry much emotional heft.
That job is executed more effectively in the music, played offstage on two pianos by music director Michael Patrick Walker and Brian Cimmet. The evolution of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” out of a more sophisticated symphony that chronicles Berlin’s journey from Russia to America and his discovery of African-American music is one of several interludes in which the audience is invited in on the creative process. Arima brings a delicate touch to Therriault’s transition from youth to old age as later-period Berlin evergreens such as “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “What’ll I Do” are hatched in his mind.
Best are the passages from “Treemonisha,” beautifully sung by Victor and Rosena M. Hill, both of whom bring plenty of warmth and humor to their multiple roles. The opera’s first full staging was in 1972, more than a half-century after Joplin’s death. That inconvenience makes it a challenge for Saltzman to craft a satisfying ending that involves both men. But even taking into account that handicap, the show limps laboriously toward the posthumous performance and Pulitzer win, suggesting uncertainty over how to wrap things up.
Joplin complains at one point that “Treemonisha” is perceived as “too fancy for the ragtime crowd, too raggy for the opera set.” Yet it is “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It has too few of the soaring emotional arcs of a musical and not enough of a good play’s dramatic throughline. It’s full of intriguing historical incident yet somehow leaves you feeling you’ve only skimmed the surface.
Saltzman should have heeded the advice of Snyder: “Please don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”