Musical brings the early 20th century alive

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By Doug Deuchler

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Tintypes is a gem of a musical: intimate and small-scale, yet rousing and exuberant. It's the perfect show for Open Door Theater. The thoroughly charming cast of five has solid comic timing and first-rate voices. Shawn J. Douglass directs with a light-hearted touch.

This delightful, tune-filled musical revue is set between the turn of the 20th century and the outbreak of World War I. This was an optimistic time when the U.S. was undergoing monumental growth. 

Over 40 vintage songs from the early 1900s are presented, although not all of the numbers are done in their entirety. The score features works by George M. Cohan, Scott Joplin, Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, and many other top "tin pan alley" composers of the period.

A tintype is a photograph that's actually printed on a thin tin square. This early technology made photography available to the masses. The musical is essentially an assortment of pictures that begin and end with the use of one of the tall tripod cameras so popular a century or more ago. The combined effect of the various segments is like looking at an album of America during the ragtime era.

Though the musical is episodic with no real storyline or plot development, Tintypes is no mindless hodge-podge of old-time favorites. The songs are arranged into thematic segments — from the inventions of the industrial age to the gaiety of vaudeville. They range from patriotic crowd-pleasers to ragtime syncopation. 

We get glimpses of historical figures and fictional types, such as a poor but spunky immigrant, a stage star, a radical socialist, a robber baron and such. 

Janell DeJohn is perhaps too pretty and perky to portray notorious firebrand, anarchist Emma Goldman (who is buried in nearby Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, by the way), but she lights up the stage with her energy. 

A wide-eyed, sad-sack Jewish immigrant who kisses the ground as soon as he arrives is played by Alex Ghattas. He's hilarious doing a vaudeville stand-up routine.

Sahara Glasener-Boldes plays flirtatious pseudo-Parisian chanteuse Anna Held, acclaimed star of the Ziegfeld Follies and impresario Flo Ziegfeld's first wife. She sings one of her signature songs: "It's Delightful to Be Married."

A domestic worker, Held's maid, is well played by Marina Dee, often standing in for the downtrodden minorities. 

Greg Zawada portrays Teddy Roosevelt and other blustering extroverts with great gusto. Ethnic humor was widely popular a century ago and Zawada is fun doing a skit as an Italian vaudeville comic.

The ensemble sounds great together, but each performer gets numerous chances to shine.

The musical director is David Pollack. He and percussionist David Eisenreich provide the off-stage accompaniment.

The clever choreography is by Darrin French. Charlie Marie McGrath is the assistant director. The stage manager is Michael Hennessy.

Sarah JHP Watkins' scenic design is inspired. There's a hazy vista of the Statue of Liberty in the distant harbor, which was exactly what the massive waves of immigrants glimpsed as they got closer to Ellis Island. The action unfolds on a pier stacked with crates. There is also a maroon drape that can be pulled to create a theatrical setting.

Some of the songs are old favorites like "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," and "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" But most of the numbers are delightfully obscure and enjoyable. 

This is a family show with no vulgarity. Though it's not plot-driven, the musical is a nostalgic tribute to the end of what's sometimes called "The Age of Innocence." This feel-good revue is never heavy, nor does it dwell on the dark side of the period — the poverty, the sweatshops, the discrimination and lack of opportunities for women and minorities. 

Tintypes is a celebration of the early 20th century, but several scenes do touch on the inequities and challenges of the period, such as "We Shall Not Be Moved," a labor song, and "She's Getting More Like White Folks Every Day," which shows thinly-veiled racism. 

White audiences of the early 1900s rarely saw "authentic negroes" on stage — only whites in blackface. But Bert Williams (1874-1922) was an enormously popular African-American headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies. Dee is especially poignant singing his signature song, "Nobody."

Tintypes at Open Door is a lively, thoroughly enjoyable piece of Americana. It's no simple exercise in period schmaltz and flag-waving patriotism. This is a captivating and upbeat production.

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