Two Composers, One Curmudgeon Off-Broadway

By Frank Scheck, | The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 1993 | Go to article overview

Two Composers, One Curmudgeon Off-Broadway


Frank Scheck,, The Christian Science Monitor


THE HELIOTROPE BOUQUET BY SCOTT JOPLIN & LOUIS CHAUVIN Written by Eric Overmeyer. Directed by Joe Morton. At Playwrights.

WRONG TURN AT LUNGFISH By Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz. Directed by Mr. Marshall. At the Promenade Theatre.

PLAYWRIGHT Eric Overmyer has been justly acclaimed for his theatrical imagination and for his dazzling language in such works as "On the Verge..." and "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe," but he lets these qualities get away from him in his newest play. It's about the brief collaboration between Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin.

Joplin, of course, was the celebrated black composer who put ragtime on the map. Chauvin was an obscure composer and pianist who died at age 26, but who gained immortality through his work with Joplin on a single piece, "The Heliotrope Bouquet." Little is known of this incident in musical history, but it is certainly an intriguing subject for dramatization.

Unfortunately, Mr. Overmyer's penchant for stylization and verbosity get in the way of the story. The piece is a dreamy meditation, told from Joplin's view. It jumps back and forth in time from 1917, when the composer was ill and living in obscurity with his second wife, to a dozen years earlier in St. Louis. These scenes, depicting the raucous atmosphere of the time and detailing the rivalry and eventual collaboration between the two men, are overdone, fragmented vignettes that are often confusing.

It is only when the playwright simplifies his approach that he finds the emotions of his story. The ailing Joplin's encounter with a cleaning girl, in which he attempts to impress her with a failed attempt at playing the piano; the scene in which Joplin and Chauvin create their music - these resonate with a force lacking in the rest of the play.

Compounding the difficulty is the over-stylized set design by Richard Hoover, which uses as its motif a surrealistic representation of an exploded piano. The small stage at Playwrights Horizons can't handle the clutter, and there is not enough room for Louis Johnson's choreography either.

Delroy Lindo, a powerful presence as the Harlem mob boss in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," is a moving and dissipated figure as Joplin, and Duane Boutte, as Chauvin, offers a powerful portrait of a talented man undone by overindulgence. …

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Two Composers, One Curmudgeon Off-Broadway
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