Old-fashioned American fun

“Tintypes,” a play about the birth pangs of the 20th century written near its demise, provides its audience with an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza of a good time.

The show follows five actors as they step into and out of characters based on Charlie Chaplin, Teddy Roosevelt, Emma Goldman and Anna Held through a variety of musical numbers and silent movie-style sketches. Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham makes good use of a talented young cast to bring the spirit of the times to life.

The show is less a linear story with a beginning, middle and end, and more an exploration of class, race, politics, technology and the sensationalistic nature of the press in America in those days. Despite its heavy subject matter, the show is lighthearted and fun, and it is told almost entirely through snippets of familiar tunes that audiences of all ages will recognize and enjoy.

The show opens with Charlie, played by Sam Balzac, a Yiddish immigrant to New York City, singing an accented version of “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” As Balzac’s character serves as a representative of the immigrant experience, each of the other actors generally represent a broad section of American society. Christina Eskridge’s Susannah provides a window into the prejudices and challenges African-Americans faced. Tyler Nye’s TR stands in for the establishment and upper class as embodied by Teddy Roosevelt. Jessica Gruver’s Anna represents the sort of celebrity deification we still embrace today. And Cassidy Dermott’s Emma represents the voice of the underclass, a fiery voice for change and a good foil to TR’s Knickerbocker aristocrat.

Balzac plays Charlie in the style of Chaplin’s famous Tramp, but his performance is no mere imitation. His gift for physical comedy, combined with his character’s often unfortunate circumstances, provide the audience with an sympathetic everyman to identify with, and his silent sketches serve as the engine of the play’s loose narrative arc.

Eskridge’s Susannah carries the show’s emotional weight on her back. While the play’s nature eschews any real character development, her portrayal of Susannah’s struggle, particularly in the song “Nobody,” runs the gamut from sorrow to anger to a quiet resolve. Susannah’s feelings are routinely overlooked by the other characters, and it is a particularly telling moment when she is startled and genuinely moved by Charlie’s gesture of a handshake in the opening scene. Thankfully, our society has come a long way.

Gruver is engaging as Anna, who provides an object for TR and Charlie’s desires for many of the show’s sketches. As a representative of the cult of superficiality, her character carries the least dramatic weight, but she is fun to watch, and her deliberately faux Parisian accent (her character is a fraud) sounds like something a girl from the Midwest would dream up.

Dermott brings a manic energy to her performance as Emma, giving the audience a sense of the political struggles of the time. For much of the show, she portrays an anarchist actively speaking out against the notion of government itself, and her duet with TR, “What It Takes To Make Me Love You – You’ve Got It,” provides one of the show’s many highlights as the establishment tries to woo the underclass it needs to remain on top. I couldn’t help but think of the Occupy Wall Street movement during her political speeches, and it demonstrates that, as a society, we are still grappling with many of the same issues as the characters in the play.

In a show featuring several strong performances, Nye nearly steals the show as TR. His characters all seem possessed by an almost innocent sort of arrogance, and a clear sense of entitlement guides most of his actions. Even when he is being magnanimous, such as when he gives Charlie some spare change, he still comes across as haughty and buffoonish. For much of the show, he represents the privileged class this world was built for, and he has an extraordinarily good time hamming it up for the audience. His moments as Roosevelt provide some of the funniest parts of the show, and it is amazing that he is able to transform so effectively into Roosevelt by simply putting on a pair of pince-nez glasses and puffing his chest up a bit.

Tijana Bjelajac’s minimalist set design provides the characters with the necessary room to maneuver during their various musical numbers, and the still photographs projected upstage by lighting designer Bonnie Brewer serve to help move the story along. Kent Streed’s period costumes display the fashions of the day perfectly, and Kimberly Weems’ superb piano skills set the tone for each moment of the show.

Although the second act is not nearly as engaging as the first, the actors’ performances keep the audience on board. I smiled through the entire performance, and I think most of my fellow audience members may have as well. “Tintypes” provides not only provides a Cliff’s notes version of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also gives the audience a taste of what it was like to enjoy a silent movie or a vaudeville show. Ultimately, “Tintypes” provides a good old-fashioned dose of American fun for the whole family to enjoy.