Can You Hear Me Now?

Theaters, Actors, Etc.

May 5, 2008 at 2:06 pm

I'm a Baby Boomer on the threshold of a birthday, so when I fuss about having trouble hearing in a theater, I wonder if I'm suffering from too many years of loud Rock music or perhaps just too many years of, well, life. But what I have been hearing recently are complaints from others about theater sound.

When I reviewed Know Theatre's recent production of Bare: The Musical, I wrote, "This production of the Rent-styled, through-sung musical is most troubled by poor sound management, especially when Bare's cast sings with choral ferocity that lacks diction. They do so with fervor and apparent understanding, but the words are tough to grasp."

The cast was young and talented, but despite Know's intimate 200-seat space, the sound was a mess — mics were not brought up at the right moment or were cut out at the wrong moment, and lyrics were blurred by too much volume. It made the show tough to enjoy.

For the Broadway Series at the Aronoff Center — where the average ticket costs more than twice as much as at Know Theatre, around $50 compared to $22 — I heard numerous complaints about the sound for The Color Purple. A CityBeat reader shot me an e-mail saying, "I am done going to the Aronoff. If you don't sit close to the stage, you will not hear a thing. We saw Color Purple and the show suffered from lack of quality sound system.

It looked good, but the story was lost. You observe people watching the show and see the palpable strain in their bodies, leaning forward to hear! We all lost a bunch of the show due to the crappy sound system."

Know Theatre and the Broadway Series assure me the problems have been fixed. But theatergoers have a right to expect good sound when a show opens — it's not like the ticket prices are reduced while they're tinkering to fix the problem. It's especially troubling with the Broadway Series: Touring companies travel from venue to venue, and they need to make the sound work everywhere they go — perhaps especially at the Aronoff, where there have been complaints about acoustics in the Procter & Gamble Hall since it opened in 1995.

By the way, I'm pretty sure it's not my aging ears: Last week I saw the Cincinnati Playhouse's Ella (reviewed here) and caught every word of Tina Fabrique's excellent musical portrait of Ella Fitzgerald. I recently came across a feature in a technical theater magazine about how the Playhouse made certain the sound for last fall's Altar Boyz was top-notch, after the same production was criticized in St. Louis.

That's the way a professional theater should operate — anticipating this issue and addressing it in advance.

I'm interested in readers' comments about similar concerns. I promise I'll hear you.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]