Set Gourmet Theatre

Few shows work like a charm. They may labor like a plowhorse, or calculate like a slide rule–but they seldom have the flair of Tintypes. The charm worked in the Apollo Theater’s local premiere of this turn-of-the-century songfest, and it works again in Steve Scott’s affectionate, intimate revival at the Set Gourmet Theatre.

It’s easy to love this show for what it avoids. Though the 1980 Tony-nominated revue contains 50 vintage songs from 1876 to 1920, it’s no exercise in quaint, flag-waving nostalgia and no mindless reprise of long-ago favorites. Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin, and Gary Pearle have cleverly arranged this group of diverting tunes–by composers including Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, and Scott Joplin–so that Tintypes contrasts the American dream, as naively embraced by anonymous immigrants, with deflating quotes and ballads. Behind the lilting numbers you glimpse an America of economic extremes and a predatory patriotism that fed the Spanish-American War and gloried in our theft of Panama from Colombia.

Like the old-fashioned camera used to start and end the show, Tintypes takes its own tender snapshots as it celebrates the energy of a shameless, profligate America. You get the feeling the era put all it felt into song, whether popular Tin Pan Alley sheet music like “Smiles,” Joplin’s ragtime classics, or the light-opera luxuriance of Herbert’s “Kiss Me Again.” Tintypes reflects an amazing range; there’s a tribute to electricity, a medley of songs of arrival, vaudeville sketches, and the patriotic crowd-pleasers Cohan could write in his sleep (right now this last category seems a tad too comforting and smug). In “She’s Gettin’ More Like the White Folks Every Day” you even get thinly cosmetized racism.

Whether the show’s abundance of songs reflects a vital time or just some marvelous tunesmiths, it’s hard to tire of delights like “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Hello, Ma Baby,” “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “Bill Bailey,” “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” and “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Tintypes also features lesser-known gems, like the infectious “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” and the roof-raiser “I’m Goin’ to Live Anyhow, ’til I Die.”

The cast play five cultural or historical representatives, icons who sum up the times: bumptious T.R. (Teddy Roosevelt), coquettish Anna (Anna Held, Flo Ziegfeld’s pseudo-Parisian chanteuse wife, notorious for her milk baths), Charlie (a wide-eyed immigrant modeled after the great Chaplin), Emma (Goldman, the radical socialist and spellbinding orator), and Susannah, the archetypal working girl who’s seen and sung of hard times.

The characters mingle in delightful and revealing ways, as when ideological enemies Roosevelt and Goldman burst into a quick-time duet, “You’ve Got It” (with Roosevelt’s cane standing in for his famous “big stick”). Adaptable Americans, the archetypes change with their material. In a pantomime out of the silent-film era the immigrant clumsily flirts with a girl just off the boat, using a balloon as a love token; in a later scene he’s a comic, dropping groaner jokes on a vaudeville audience. After being told of her husband’s adulteries, Anna Held moves from hymning the pleasures of domesticity (“It’s Delightful to Be Married!”) to a feminist fury (“Fifty-Fifty”).

As the characters change faces to suit the numbers (testifying to a boiling-pot culture in maddening flux), Tintypes finds ingenious ways to string the songs together. The 1902 hit “When It’s All Goin’ Out and Nothin’ Comin’ In,” an incongruously peppy ditty about personal bankruptcy, is performed as a game of musical chairs. As Joplin’s “Elite Syncopations” slyly tinkles behind him, the immigrant tries to hold onto an apple, but, like money, it gets passed around with maddening regularity.

The Set Gourmet Theatre offers a picture-perfect setting. As you enter the restaurant you pass through a miniature Ellis Island, and the theater’s environmental stage recalls a New York street corner circa 1900. Bedecked with street signs, the dining sections depict a cafe, a general store, the Waldorf-Astoria, and a tavern.

Steve Scott lets the two-hour spectacle swirl smoothly around the tables, neatly situating the vaudeville or solo scenes on an upper dining level and the streetwise songs in restaurant center. Backed by Dan Sticco’s sure musical direction (his busy piano is regrettably all that’s retained from the Broadway orchestration) and Suzanne Avery’s high-stepping choreography, Scott’s cast play their period parts with grit and grace.

As Charlie, David Mendes is seldom cloying; he excels at winsome pantomime or sweetly effaces himself as he sings a hesitantly ethnic version of “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Matthew McDonald plays Teddy Roosevelt and other extroverts with “ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay” gusto. Blessed with a sweet if small soprano (her operatic tour de force from Herbert’s Mlle. Modiste could use more force), Sarah Worthington depicts flirtatious Anna with salacious zest. An eager-to-please Emma (even when singing the hard-luck “Jonah Man”), Rebecca McCauley is likable, but she could use the sass and vinegar that Audrey Neenan brought to the Apollo run. Last and best, Lecresia Campbell as Susannah is a bluesy belter who can sell a song for more than it’s worth; her pile-driving “Nobody” builds and breaks like a tidal wave over the audience. If Tintypes works like a charm, it’s because Campbell works overtime.