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The first production of the Janiec Opera Company at the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival has launched their season with a bang. Tintypes, a Broadway musical crafted of songs reflecting the history and ideology of America at the turn of the 20th century, is a history lesson and a rollicking Fourth of July kind of entertainment rolled into one. Director and choreographer Dean Anthony and Musical Director Michael Shannon have worked their wonders in this upbeat, professional production with a uniformly strong cast of five principals: Michael Cooper (baritone) as Teddy Roosevelt, Rebecca Goldstein (soprano) as Emma, Jasmine Habersham (soprano) as Susannah, Marck Koeck (tenor) as Charlie, and Paige Lucas (soprano) as Anna.
This kind of production is new to BMC, as far as I know, and is indicative of the widening scope of the Company’s offerings. It exacts much from the cast — singing, dancing, and mime — as the characters are, by turns, orators, silent-film greats, political activists, popular singers, newly-arrived immigrants, and just ordinary people from all walks of life. The props are minimal: canes, parasols, a park bench, a trunk that serves variously as coffin, bathtub, new Oldsmobile, etc., and the sight gags are hilarious. The splendidly stylized choreography was some of the finest I’ve seen, all done to the non-stop accompaniment of the indefatigable pianist Michael Shannon. The ninety-minute production is enhanced by projected images culled from the period.
Of course, it’s through music that we experience the past in question. There were songs of Scott Joplin, Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan, and many more. Some were instantly recognizable, such as ''Meet Me in St Louis,'' Toyland,” ''You're a Grand Old Flag,'' “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “America the Beautiful,” “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Others were skillfully merged into quodlibets, such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” Some made you laugh out loud, such as “I Want What I Want When I Want It.” So many others give you the nagging feeling you’ve heard it before (but where?) and leave you wondering. The truth is that our popular song heritage is vast — so much so that the older repertory is at risk for becoming an endangered species. How many of us have more than a nodding acquaintance of this treasure trove?
The history lesson is not all rosy, of course, although the show is “family friendly.” There are dark images of tenement squalor, crowded factories, child workers, immigrants down on their luck, and the characters rail against social injustice of every stripe. There was a scene of musical chairs in which the first losers are society’s lowest members (black woman, followed by the poor white woman, then the poor immigrant man), leaving only two of the rich left, and it’s the man that’s left triumphant. Another scene shows Teddy Roosevelt pontificating once again, but now the other characters speak along with him and drown him out, quoting among others Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington.
The production closes with a reenactment of vaudeville, the main sort of popular entertainment before World War I. The songs are over-the-top, the corny jokes delivered in wry deadpan. In the final scene the immigrant, Charlie, gets his girl in his new-found American home, but neither fame nor wealth.