Tintypes

Violet Crown Players' revival of the revue 'Tintypes' doesn't always work theatrically, but musically, its celebration of early 20th-century American music is pleasing to hear

Arts Review

Tintypes

Dougherty Arts Center Theatre, through May 14

Running Time: 2 hrs

For those perhaps unfamiliar with the term, a tintype is a photographic form popularized at the turn of the last century, and it's significant both historically and in terms of this musical revue, conceived by Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin, and Gary Pearle. Because the tintype was a one-step process, a photographer could set up shop anywhere. It made photography available to the masses, and masses there were. The American population boom at the turn of the 20th century came primarily through immigration, before the first world war was fought and before the Twenties roared, and it is this boom and the circumstances surrounding it that are remembered here.

So often in a musical revue, the show is actually hampered by a story that's used as an excuse to string together songs from a given period. Tintypes succeeds beyond most musical revues because it plays to the episodic nature of the structure, offering glimpses of character types – the poor immigrant, the wealthy politician, the suffragette, the cruel boss – embodied in short scenes rather than a full-blown story, with the music surrounding and commenting on the action. And what amazing music: Scott Joplin, John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan – some of the most inspiring, positive, optimistic music this country has ever produced. It's difficult to go wrong with songs like "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Hello, Ma Baby," and "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."

This Violet Crown Players production gets one thing very right: With isolated exceptions, you can hear every word, spoken or sung, and apparently without amplification. Some of the singers, such as Walter Songer and Jeannette Franz, seem to effortlessly fill the space at the Dougherty Arts Center. Not a bad idea, since music is mostly what this show is about. The performers are ably accompanied and perhaps assisted in being heard by a single instrumentalist, Karl Logue on piano.

While I enjoyed the production in a musical sense, theatrically it doesn't always work. Director Michael Stuart and choreographer Toni Bravo, possibly using the two-dimensionality of the photograph as inspiration, stage a lot of the show in straight lines instead of taking advantage of the depth offered by the Dougherty stage. Certainly, set designer Marco Noyola uses the photo as his muse – enlarged tintypes of characters that appear in the play, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Emma Goldman, dominate the stage. Two-dimensionality was apparently a choice, but if the actors – dancing, singing, or playing a scene – are more or less standing in straight lines, the dynamism of the music is lost in the picture. The most effective staging in the show comes in the second act, when more angular staging and the depth of the stage are utilized. In addition, the choreography works only on those far too few occasions when the actors, as a group, fully commit to it.

While the production is hampered by its staging, I'm always struck by the bounty of musical talent in Austin, some of which is on display here, and I'm always pleased to be able to see – and more importantly, hear – a gem of a musical revue like this.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Tintypes, Violet Crown Players, Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin, Gary Pearle, Michael Stuart, Toni Bravo, Scott Joplin, John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Boy, Hello, Ma Baby, Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, Walter Songer, Jeannette Franz, Karl Logue, Marco Noyola

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