It's dainty-quainty time again now that "Tintypes," the turn-of-the-century musical potpourri seen Off Off Broadway last spring, has come to Broadway at the Golden, where it opened last evening. Glowingly patriotic, despite occasional barbs aimed at the seats of power, and chiefly at the seats of power, and chiefly at Teddy Roosevelt; impeccably produced and staged; and, furthermore, all smiles - it should have found in me an ardent admirer. Instead, I found myself more often than not wincing at its cuteness as I watched it slip mincingly by.
It's certainly pretty to look at as the five versatile performers, portraying different characters in pantomime and song and brief exchanges of dialogue, move gracefully and assume picturesque poses in Tom Lynch's discreetly artful setting, distinguished by a narrow false proscenium on the forestage (the Golden is too big for this very intimate show) and a couple of successively smaller ones in front of a bare backcloth. The props and the attractive array of costumes are introduced adroitly.
And the songs, though there are too many utterly forgotten ones that all too clearly deserve their neglect, do capture the flavor of what we like to consider an innocent time. Actually, the range from the 1876 "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (earlier, if you include numbers by that peripatetic composer "traditional") to a 1920 "Pastime Rag." But with few exceptions they date from the early years of the century.
There are telling moments, several of them in pantomime as the show's young Jewish immigrant figure (performed in cap and muffler and baggy pants by Jerry Zaks, with references to Chaplin, George M. Cohan, Cagney playing Cohan, and others) encounters the wide assortment of characters played by the rest. And those others perform amusingly: Mary Catherine Wright as a variety of awkward, sniffling or rowdy women; Carolyn Mignini as a simpering flirt of an Anna Held, among other creamy-skinned beauties; Lynne Thigpen as a female well as in several guises; and Trey Wilson as Bully Teddy, as a representative of Fifth Ave.'s filthy rich, and more.
They're all engaging and given interesting things to do by Mary Kyte, one of the conceivers of "Tintypes" and the person responsible for the musical staging, and by director Gary Pearle.
But the obsessive "cuteness" I referred to earlier - the delicate maneuvering of the players, the lighting, the props, and so on - is made to compensate for the modest singing talents of this crew.
Take the scene "If I Were on the Stage" from the Victor Herbert operetta "Mlle. Modiste," the one closing with the waltz "Kiss Me Again," so affectingly sung by Fritzi Scheff even in her last years: it is not only gently mocked, but Mignini's soprano, while sweet, is unable to give it the subtle, flowing conviction required.
Thigpen does better with Bert Williams' "Nobody," though not quite well enough. These two are the principal soloists; the rest mostly lend their voices to the rousing ensemble numbers, among them "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "I'm Goin' to Live Anyhow, 'Til I Die" (the first-act finale), "You're a Grand Old Flag," and the finale "Smiles," which follows a genuinely lovely and prolonged use of Herbert's "Toyland."
Yesterday marked the 30th Anniversary of one of America's great theatrical institutions, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. So without any more ado let me bend a knee in homage and raise a toast (it's a damn-fool position, but after all, it is only symbolic) to the company's leader Zelda Fischandler and all who have sailed with her during the past three decades.
The tribute, while spontaneous, is not precisely irrelevant. For last night at the John Golden Theater, just by chance, or probably not quite by chance, a most winsomely agreeable cabaret-style musical, Tintypes, officially opened its doors. And it was at the Arena Stage that Tintypes began its understandably charmed life, which took it, last season, to an off-Broadway run before its present very welcome Broadway arrival.
It is a cunningly contrived nosegay to impossible times impossibly past - the nostalgic never-land of cultural memory. And it is a winner.
The show has been conceived by Mary Kyte, with Mel Marvin, who also arranged the all-important music and Gary Pearlman, who has also directed this turn of the century collection of musical vignettes.
Tintypes, by the way, are those old photographic positives printed on strip metal - and it makes a very appropriate title for the show. For the idea is to illuminate and capture a time in, and even more, an image of American history through the pop music of the period.
The music runs from 1891, with the scandalous Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay!, to 1920 with the Pastime Rag, but most of it derives from the first five years of the present century.
Clearly, the difficulty has been to impose some shape upon the show - and to avoid it becoming merely a pretty medley of oldies and goodies. Here the show's begetters have been adroit. They have five actors, each of whom they have endowed with on-going personalities. To these fictional types they also add two historical figures, Teddy Roosevelt and the Ziegfeld Follies star, Anna Held.
Then the songs are compartmentalized into sections - such as Arrivals dealing with new immigrants, and Vaudeville, a very funny but occasionally intrusive insert mimicking the vaudeville houses of the first part of the century.
Finally, the structure of the show is held together with a number of mime sequences (presumably by Miss Kyte, who is responsible for musical staging) that prove both sweet and subtle.
The music is totally charming. It comes, chiefly, from a period when popular music found itself in a melting pot, absorbing influences from European operetta, English music hall, rag-time, the classic marches of Sousa, and the various ethnic strains of the new immigrants. The result was American vernacular music.
Throughout the show, there runs the theme of rich and poor, Fifth Avenue and the Lower East Side, Rockefeller and the tramp. Also, the beautifully mindless and jingoistic patriotism of the period - my flag, right or wrong. Hunger, however, is seen as the yielding backbone of dissent, and the spectre of revolutionary anarchism is appropriately kept in focus.
But what really makes the show adorable is its cast, and the opportunities it has been given. It has been hand-picked then hand-crafted. The outstanding performer is Jerry Zaks, who combines total involvement with a nuclear radiance and a show-biz pizzazz. Just to hear him at the beginning, singing Yankee Doddle Dandy in a precisely articulated Russian-Jewish accent is alone worth the price of the experience.
The other four are also unusually gifted, and add up to a fantastic team. Carolyn Mignini makes a simperingly tough Anna Held, Trey Wilson is bully as Teddy Roosevelt, Lynne Thigpen, of the wonderful voice, has great moments as the token black, and Mary Catherine Wright is equally in place as the token nonconformist.
See Tintypes - it will take you back to a world you never knew but have always wistfully wondered about.
The years that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries were the last truly simple era in American life. The melting pot had been successfully stirred, prosperity was in the air and World War I had yet to sully the nation's jingoistic innocence. ''Tintypes,'' the musical revue that arrived at the Golden last night, aims to recreate the moonlit glow of that calm, gentle time, and in this mission it amply succeeds. It's a pleasant, modest show, full of the romantic melodies and cultural flavor of a vanished past. If that pleasantness very rarely boils over into excitement, it may be history that's to blame. The pre-1914 years were a time for sweet Scott Joplin ragtime and sparklers; hot Fats Waller jazz and fireworks were still waiting in the wings.
The revue's clever creators are Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, who also double, respectively, as its choreographer, pianist-conductor and director. With the aid of an agile cast of five, they take us on a whirlwind tour of almost 50 period songs and throw in a little socio-political background, as well as a mini-Act II vaudeville show, for good measure. The songs are grouped by theme (from ''Arrivals'' to ''The Ladies'' to ''Rich and Poor'') and the performers each portray an archetype (from suffragette to greenhorn to soubrette). While this could be a pedantic format, the pitfalls are usually avoided with theatrical ingenuity.
Mr. Pearle and Miss Kyte have smartly seen to it that ''Tintypes'' is almost always on the move. The show swirls and dances from number to number, with periodic excursions into silent-movie comedy mime. One minute the cast is celebrating ''Wheels'' by chugging along with the happy strains of ''Wabash Cannonball'' and ''In My Merry Oldsmobile''; moments later, they are in ''The Factory,'' where the songs and atmosphere shift into a passingly sorrowful key. Such switches in mood and place are all accomplished on a nearly bare, gilt-framed stage designed by Tom Lynch. Thanks to a few well-chosen props, some glorious Jess Goldstein costumes and Paul Gallo's fine-tuned lighting, almost every transition glides by before the seams can show.
The revue's creators also give ''Tintypes'' a vague dramatic line by artfully organizing the songs to move both history and their characters forward. The evening's just-off-the boat Jewish immigrant (Jerry Zaks) opens the show by singing a heavily accented rendition of ''Yankee Doodle Dandy,'' but by the end, he's evolved into a self-assured vaudevillian who can deliver the same song with full Cohan pizazz. On those sporadic occasions when the show is advanced through spoken words, the results are not nearly so amusing or informative. A lengthy sketch about the entertainer Anna Held is flat, as are the most explicit digressions about imperialism, feminism and industrialism. In particular, Trey Wilson and Mary Catherine Wright, as comic-book incarnations of Teddy Roosevelt and Emma Goldman, are too often asked to give us superficial political primers; it's a considerable relief when they drop the rhetoric, pick up some canes and shimmy handsomely to ''What It Takes to Make Me Love You - You've Got It.''
The highpoints of ''Tintypes'' are, of course, the best songs - especially those that are sung straight through instead of being piled up in ''Your Hit Parade'' fashion. Mr. Zaks, a jack-in-the-box entertainer of the Joel Grey school, provides a rousing version of Cohan's ''Then I'd Be Satisfied With Life,'' a socially conscious ditty that Dreiser might have written if he'd had a sense of humor. When Carolyn Mignini, a dainty soprano, sings Victor Herbert's ''Toyland,'' her light voice and utterly ingenuous smile capture the full guilelessness of a younger America. The stand-out in the cast, though, is Lynne Thigpen, a stern-looking woman with a corrosively throaty voice. Her smoky renderings of ''Nothing'' and ''Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?'' have an authority and passion that cut right through the lightness of the evening and hit us in that deeper place where the blues smolder.
While there are some picturesque curiosities among the remaining numbers (notably the amusingly futuristic anthem to ''Electricity''), others defy fresh readings (''Stars and Stripes Forever'') or break off too quickly (''Meet Me in St. Louis'') or prove just plain forgettable. It was in 1911, at the tail end of this show's era, that Irving Berlin's ''Alexander's Ragtime Band'' made mainstream American pop music safe for the later, high-flying songs that are celebrated in such current revues as ''Ain't Misbehavin' '' and ''One Mo' Time.'' Miss Thigpen's electric moments aside, ''Tintypes'' is not as stirring as those shows, and its compensating intimacy has been slightly compromised by its move from its previous, smaller home Off Broadway. But perhaps such comparisons are as invidious as they are inevitable. ''Tintypes'' is, after all, exactly what its title promises it to be - a scrapbook of pretty, nostalgic snapshots assembled less for thrills than for an amiable, easygoing browse.