What the heck are theater critics good for? Few of us are actually curmudgeons who revel in badmouthing actors and shows. Most I know are theater fans. I typically attend a show full of optimism, expecting to be entertained. I love it when something unexpected happens and I only write negatively when I feel a production has failed to live up to its promise. I’m especially thrilled by fresh interpretations or revelatory performances.
That happened last spring when Know Theatre staged Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with a cast of fine local actors, and again earlier this month when UC’s College-Conservatory of Music presented Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Although I saw the recent Broadway revival of the latter with well known stars, CCM’s version — using a lot of young talent ably directed by faculty member Steven Goldstein — offered revelations about the vicissitudes of mortality and the frustrations of love I hadn’t previously appreciated.
When I go to see any play or musical, however often I’ve witnessed previous productions, I try to judge what’s onstage before me — the work of a director, actors and designers to create a show that deserves to be judged on its own merits. (Exceptions to this rule are touring shows that replicate Broadway productions, sometimes successfully, as with last fall’s glorious presentation of South Pacific, and sometimes not.)
I seldom review a work that’s brand new since Cincinnati rarely gets true premieres of new works. Playhouse in the Park occasionally offers them — last fall’s Broadway-bound High with Kathleen Turner was a new script and Carson Kreitzer’s Behind the Eye, coming in April, is that work’s debut. Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati often presents regional premieres of new works first offered in New York City.
Broadway critics serve as advance scouts who tell theatergoers whether colossally expensive tickets are worth the investment. Recently Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was reviewed while still in previews which began in late November and drag on and on while tickets are sold at full price. The production has spent $65 million to come together (by comparison, that’s six times the amount that ArtsWave’s recently launched local fund-raising campaign is hoping to generate to support all the arts in Cincinnati), so published opinions could have real impact.
Most of the major media in New York, plus critics writing for papers like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune printed reviews assessing Spider-Man as possibly the worst musical ever. Perhaps they’re doing theatergoers a favor by warning them about a show that’s an ill-conceived mess, despite its major credentials — conceived and directed by Julie Taymor (whose Lion King continues to please audiences around the world) and music by U2’s Bono and The Edge. Strangely, the unprecedented pre-opening negative reviews have attracted curiosity seekers who like to witness car wrecks and the production continues to have strong sales.
So critics don’t always have the impact they intend. However, here in Cincinnati, I try to point CityBeat readers to local productions worth seeing by offering my own assessment as well as providing enough description to help you understand if it’s theater you might enjoy. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I hope you find my opinions helpful as you choose which shows to see.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]