An Uneven ‘Bouquet’ to Scott Joplin : Despite two strong leads in this story of the ragtime composer, the Ensemble Theatre production stumbles on the dreamy, poetic style of Eric Overmyer’s play.
Scott Joplin was a man of his time, and in one way it was the right time. The American public was ready for ragtime music; Joplin’s first big hit, the “Maple Leaf Rag,” became the most popular rag ever.
But in another way it was the wrong time. Racial bigotry, just a few decades after the Civil War, was politically correct, and the idea that Joplin would grow into more than just a composer of popular ditties was scoffed at.
It’s a shame that no one has thought to make a film of Joplin’s eccentric and tragic life and his development into an American composer of note. Eric Overmyer sort of fills the gap with his theatrical tone poem “The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin,” at the Ensemble Theatre through Saturday.
It’s a dream play, a many-layered hallucination of Joplin’s in 1916, the year before he died of syphilis. Bouncing back and forth between the reality of his current sad state and briefly flashing memories of past times high and low, Joplin has trouble connecting with either.
Overmyer weaves emotions, philosophy and the composer’s desperate hunger for recognition into an intriguing (if sometimes broad and simplistic) poetic patchwork of moments, rather than a chronological history.
At the Ensemble, Roosevelt Blankenship Jr. directed the piece and plays Joplin, both as a young man and (effectively without makeup) at the end of his rope and his life. It’s the right performance in the wrong production, as is Mellow Martin’s volatile and intricate tour de force as Chauvin, Joplin’s friend and sometime collaborator. Both actors know how to deal with Overmyer’s primary-colored style.
But as a director, Blankenship hasn’t been able to translate the play’s drug-hazy aura into a viable theatrical form. He also hasn’t found other actors comfortable in the style.
Jason Powell almost makes the grade both as an amusingly shy trick in a New Orleans sporting house and as a high-kicking high-flyer in a St. Louis cafe, but he lacks the focus that would make his roles shine. Dorsey Watson has the same problem as the swinging Tom Turpin.
Wichasta V. Reese has a couple of good moments as one of the New Orleans hookers and both of Joplin’s wives, but she differentiates little. And the action almost comes to a halt when Barry Baxter is on as Joplin’s publisher, reading his lines like the evening news and waving his hands wildly.
* “The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin,” Ensemble Theatre, 844 E. Lincoln Ave., Suite E, Orange. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $8-$10. (714) 998-2199. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Roosevelt Blankenship Jr.: Scott Joplin
Mellow Martin: Louis Chauvin
Wichasta V. Reese: Spanish Mary, Lottie, Belle
Dorsey Watson: Tom Turpin
Jason Powell: Trick John, Disappearing Sam
Barry Baxter: John Stark
An Ensemble Theatre production of Eric Overmyer’s play, directed by Roosevelt Blankenship Jr. Scenic design: Brian Tucker. Musical direction: Eric Marchese. Lighting/technical director: Angela Akins.