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BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Dusts Off TINTYPES

Not too many seasons back, at Theatre Works I saw a charming review of turn-of-the-century musical numbers (by the likes of Irving Berlin and others) entitled SIMPLE MELODIES. The songs were rendered by a small but talented ensemble, and I so enjoyed it that I returned more than once - basically, because I wanted to treat friends who I knew would appreciate it as much as I did. With Theatre Memphis' TINTYPES, conceived by Mary Kyte with Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, and charmingly directed (often with a "knowing wink") by Kell Christie, I may just have to contact those friends once again.

Theatrically, it's a "step up" in dramatic heft compared to SIMPLE MELODIES, as it incorporates real as well as imagined characters - radical Emma Goldman, politico Theodore Roosevelt, songstress Anna Held (Flo Ziegfeld's obsession). Musically, it's a veritable cornucopia of aural delights from the era. Marches, anyone? There's John Philip Sousa. Schmaltz? "It's Delightful to Be Married," a tune made famous by the alluring Ms. Held. Spiritual uplift? "Motherless Child" and "Wayfaring Stranger" are stirringly sung (nice "pipes," Annie Strong). While the songs (many are captured in medley) were all popular in the early years of the previous century, they are not randomly incorporated; rather, they are grouped thematically around situations and characters (I was reminded of the film ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, which allowed characters to sing Beatles' songs that furthered the story along).

The different "voices" that constitute the "melting pot" of nationalities, social classes, ideologies, etc., are not entirely alien to what E. L. Doctorow accomplished in RAGTIME (and the musical version of that epic work); in short, TINTYPES' lightness of touch doesn't completely obliterate an underlying seriousness. There are a number of instances that reveal the clashes of class and culture that ultimately made us a stronger nation (just watch a bully-ish Theodore Roosevelt find justification for planting Uncle Sam's foot on foreign soil - and listen to an anarchic Emma Goldman's alarming recognition of the gap between the vulgarly rich and the downtrodden poor - and observe the sarcastic expression on the face of a black woman after a "peaches and cream" Anna Held has coyly rendered a no-longer-relevant song stereotyping the feminine "ideal" of the day).

Nor does TINTYPES simply trot out the tunes of the period. The review is punctuated with a good bit of mime (particularly as rendered by a comically elastic Justin Willingham) and short sketches worthy of a silent Mack Sennett comedy; and, in the second act, there are a couple of charming bits of Yiddish and Italian stage humor, which call to mind vaudevillian stages.

While TINTYPES appropriately occupies the more intimate Next Stage, it is visually quite effective. Enlarged and framed photographs of the day hang in front of headlines and news stories (i.e., the sinking of the TITANIC). At the edge of the stage, footlights separate the performers from the audience. A few "touches" wittily make an appearance (in a song about "Electricity," a single light bulb descends; during "Meet Me in St. Louis," a young woman carries a single, soon-to-be-popped red balloon). Impressive, too, are Amie Eoff's elegant costumes (once Anna Held gets dressed, she is a brocaded wonder to behold).

The performers here are all distinctive in the "types" they represent: Justin Willingham's tattered immigrant, Courtney Church Tucker's elaborately coiffed "Anna Held," Joseph Lackie's bespectacled "Theodore Roosevelt," Jessica Spencer's spirited "Emma Goldman," and Annie L. Strong's knowing "Susannah." Individually and collectively, they are assured and accomplished vocalists. (I always think of Mr. Lackie as one of Memphis' best tenor voices, but his characterizations of "Roosevelt" and the Italian jokester are reminders that there are further dimensions to his talent).

TINTYPES not only affords a nostalgic and pleasant glimpse into America's past (it's rather like thumbing through the pages of an old family album), but it also gently reminds us that our rosy past was also littered with a few pricks and thorns. (Gary Beard's musical accompaniment is especially pleasing.) Through November 22. Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)