Monday, June 30, 2008

Bad Blogger

I've been a bad, negligent blogger this past week or so. Sorry. Too much travel in too short of time has taken its toll. I have much to say about my little sojourn to the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville to see "Taming of the Shrew." But that will have to wait until tomorrow. First I wanted to mention the review of "There Goes the Bride" at the Mill that showed up in the Times-Dispatch today. It was not exactly easy to find in print and even harder to find online but it was worth the search because it mentions favorably several of the nicest folks in local theater, specifically, Vicki McLeod and Richard Koch. 

They have been mainstays in the Richmond stage scene for many years and yet they both have the cheerful energy and vibrant good looks of teenagers. To the extent that it's possible to have a crush on a couple, I've had one on them for a long time, and I'm looking forward to heading out to the Mill to see "Bride" even though I, like Susan H. at the T-D, am not a big farce fan and I'm not even reviewing it.

Given that "Bride" also has Christine Schneider, John Hagadorn, Jolene Carroll, Brandon Becker, Joy Williams and of course Andra Honaker, it may qualify as one of the nicest casts ever! Regardless of their talent, I'm thinking Mr. Width may have assembled these folks just because he wanted the most pleasant directorial experience ever. Nice plan!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gotta run

Got back into town yesterday, blowing out of town today. Don't like life as a whirlwind particularly when it means I have to miss Angie, Slash, and their burlesque crew at Studio X tonight. Oh well, maybe next time. But everyone else should go see them because really, when was the last time you saw burlesque?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Allegory of the Elephant

So I must make a karmic apology to Greenville, SC, for any connotation I may have given that it was some kind of industrial wasteland. I was in the industrial area yesterday but this evening went downtown where they have a lovely riverside park with a beautiful pavilion where live music was playing (below is a picture that doesn't really do the area justice). The downtown center had a dozen or so nice restaurants and cool looking shops and three -- three! -- live performance venues within walking distance. Turns out that tomorrow night I could catch "Taming of the Shrew" or "Fiddler on the Roof" or a Kenny G concert. And the central city has about 60,000 people and the total population for the metropolitan area is about 400,000. It's something Richmond city planners might want to check out and take note of...

Also, many thanks to Joe Pabst for his thoughtful comments in response to my "Directions" post below. And Ms. Angie, I'm sorry we must part ways on Entertainment Weekly. I admit it's a guilty pleasure but I also don't know of a better place to go for a decent broad spectrum look at what's happening in all genres. For depth, I'll go to places like the New Yorker, but for breadth, gimme EW. They're also unrepentant fans of quality television like "Arrested Development" (alas, in vain) and "Lost" (thankfully, not in vain). I like that in a magazine.


Please hold Liz Marks in your heart and send out your best wishes and prayers for her. She has been admitted to the hospital and is reportedly struggling to survive. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Carolina Dreamin'

I'm outa town in the lovely industrial mecca of Greenville, SC., and so my posts this week may be a little sporadic. There's a theater down here called the Warehouse Theatre that's doing "Taming of the Shrew" that I may try to sneak out to this week. Should make for some interesting perspective.

I wanted to pass on that it's been pointed out to me that the lead actors in "Guys and Dolls" who currently reside elsewhere all have local ties to the Richmond area, including Ms. Markova who graduated from Godwin High School and Mr. Ashworth who grew up in Hopewell.

And as I was passing through Petersburg on my way south earlier today, I thought about the one-night only workshop performance of "Like Mother" that will happen at Sycamore Rouge this Friday. It's a one-woman show by "New York based performer" Shannon Polly. Before I get uppity and label her "another New York interloper" or some such thing, does somebody want to tell me what her local ties are?

Sunday, June 22, 2008


So this past week's Entertainment Weekly (my entertainment Bible) did one of those things that publications do to generate backtalk. Their "New Classics" issue lists their picks for the best movies / TV shows / music, etc. of the last 25 years. People are guaranteed to disagree, some folks will get huffy, and the buzz generated about it will make the magazine seem relevant and possibly boost its circulation.

It's a pretty transparent strategy but, of course, it worked on me. First of all, while movies, TV, music and books all got a "Top 100," theater only got a top 50. Phooey on that. And the list (online you only see the list -- in the magazine there are little blurbs for the top 25) had plenty of room for argument. First of all, their view of the best seems to have a relatively short memory: six of the top 11 were produced in the past seven years. By that accounting, we must be in a new golden age of theater. And then some of the specifics are a little baffling. I love "Avenue Q" but putting that above "Into the Woods" and "Les Mis" -- huh? "The Producers" above "The Lion King" and "Wicked"? What?

I realized there were a bunch of shows that I thought were more relevant than the ones listed but that wouldn't make the list because they never made it to Broadway. "How I Learned To Drive" for instance, or "Anton in Show Business." Omissions like that -- and the fact that they wouldn't even qualify -- made me realize the essential irrelevance of this kind of list. West of the Hudson, the theater that matters is deeper, broader, and more interesting than any Broadway-only list.

But before I totally write it off, there were a few nice surprises on the list. I was happy "subUrbia" and "Burn This" showed up. And even at #49, "Topdog / Underdog" being there was a least a teensy recognition of some of the new frontiers in theater. What do you think of this list?

Also, I came across this "Top Moments from the Tony Awards" article on the EW site, too. It's a pretty good recap with some interesting supplementary info. FYI!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Glow on "Charcoal Street"

I didn't think I was going to make it but I finally got down to AART's "Charcoal Street" Friday night at Dogwood Dell. And I was glad I did. In my opinion, the show has many problematic elements but it has a rock-solid backbone and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to get choked up at one or all of the many heartstring-pulling moments in the second act.

In a post that I wrote a couple of months ago (that some may remember only too well), I had responded to a challenge from Derome Scott Smith, AART's artistic director and the playwright responsible for "Charcoal Street," and said, "if you deliver a production in which no actor drops or muffs a line, no cue is missed, and no technical problem is obvious (all within the reasonable margin of error that I extend EVERY production) , I’ll be more than happy to write glowing remarks about it." I am very happy to report that Mr. Smith largely succeeded in delivering the goods with "Charcoal Street" (of course, there were a couple of sound problems, but that goes with the territory at the Dell). The T-D review mentioned some stumbling in line readings on opening night -- and there were still a couple of rough spots on Friday -- but overall, it was a very good, tight production. And several aspects of it were downright transcendent.

The story is incredibly compelling and the scope of it is perfect for the stage. Mr. Smith sets up the situation (two brothers living on the street, subsisting on the sales of the younger brother's artwork) well and adds in some nicely complimentary characters with Brick (Toney Q. Cobb) and Madam (Sharalyn Bailey). The inherent drama in the situation is balanced well with some great comic moments, many of them thanks to Mr. Cobb's spot-on performance. Bailey infuses her character with warmth and intelligence; you can't help but love Madam. And a real delight for me was watching Iman Shabazz as the preacher Mr. Gilliam. His character is almost too good to be true, but Shabazz has that inner light -- and a sweet, mellifluous voice -- to make you believe in his saintly champion of the homeless.

The bulk of the show, though, rests on the shoulders of the two brothers, Justin Delaney as the artist Nelson and Laurent St. Giles as the caretaker and businessman Quincy (or, as Brick says it, "Quin-say"). Delaney has a wonderful vulnerability and sensitivity that leaves no doubt that he could be the artist he portrays. St. Giles is a vibrant performer and does his best work when he is trying to reconcile his fierce love for his brother with his determination to get off the streets. He also has a great set of abs that I heard a couple girls swooning over as I left the show.

I truly enjoyed the show but I also thought it could stand a little work. There was quite a bit of telling-vs-showing, particularly in the more "talky" second act. But even in the first act, there was talk about "the streets," almost as if they were a character in the show, but only a sporadic sense of the challenges of being on the streets coming through. The nightmare scene with the brothers shivering in their sleeping bags was one of them. The backstory for most of the characters came out in big expositionary chunks; I would have liked it more if some of the character revelation came out in more organic ways. Quincy's success in the second act seemed too pat; is transition from years on the street to organizational success that easy? Finally, while I loved the literary references, a couple of them seemed a little shoe-horned in (e.g., the Medea reference in the second act). When Mr. Gilliam turned over the keys to Quincy at the top of the second act I thought of the bishop in "Les Mis." Whether an intended reference or not, it's a great moment.

But the trump card in the whole production was really the big finish. As Quincy says, "there are no words for this moment." Bruce Miller likened it to the end of "Quilters." If I might be so bold, I'd suggest the finale engineered by director L. Roi Boyd III has an even bigger impact. You get some sense of what the final quilt is going to look like throughout "Quilters;" when you see those "Charcoal Street" drawings all at once for the first time, you almost can't take it all in.

So, as I said above, I am very happy to report on the strength of this last production of AART's season. I will look forward to their 08-09 season eagerly and try my darndest to see more of their shows. If "Charcoal Street" is part of an upward ascendancy, there should be some very good work to talk about.

Friday, June 20, 2008


As I think I’ve mentioned in this space (and I know I said it at the Barksdale “Coffee and Conversations” roundtable on critics), it can be easy to overlook directors in the recognition of a show. Actors’ performances are in the forefront and the work of the designers is conspicuous. A director’s influence is everywhere and therefore in some ways nowhere. I think directors are sometimes not mentioned in reviews because it is hard for the critic to see or to know what the director had to do – beyond the obvious – to make the show work. Did he/she have to prod performers to get certain things out of them? Or did he/she have to rein them in and get them to focus? Was there one guiding principal that informed their direction or did they work it out scene by scene? What was their biggest challenge and how did they overcome it?

With a show like “Compleat Wrks” – where success seems so dependent on the interplay and the skills of the actors – the work of the director is particularly easy to miss. But coaxing that interplay into existence doesn’t just happen by itself. So Mr. Hamm is correct is saying that Matthew Ellis deserves recognition for guiding that play to success. And in my post yesterday, I mentioned the choreography without giving props to Patti D’Beck who was both director and choreographer. I’m trying to get better about this stuff, people, really I am!

So back to G&D and its visiting lead actors and the connection to Daisey’s indictment of regional theater… I haven’t seen “How Theatre Failed America” but I can at least respond to Rick’s comments.

I find his anecdote about the failure of TheatreVirginia while the downtown performance project was kicking off pretty troubling. The amount of money that can be raised to support a building – in contrast to a group of actual living people – is somewhat sad. Having said that, there has been discussion on this blog about the draw of nice venues. People respond to spectacle and there are few spaces, at least in Richmond, that are capable of supporting true spectacle. And venue debate transcends the arts world: what is the big contention for so many sports franchises these days? Upgraded venues. The reason Richmond is losing the Braves has nothing to do with how good the performers (aka players) are or what they’re paid; it’s all about a new stadium.

There are aspects of the situation facing actors that are analogous to other challenges in our current business environment. What’s one of the first things that turn-around specialists do in the corporate world? Cut the labor force. The use of out-of-town actors – isn’t this just a variation on out-sourcing? Instead of Hewlett-Packard looking to India for customer service people, you have regional theaters looking to New York for actors.

I work in the computer world 9 to 5 and I see how it favors flexibility these days; you can be an expert in one hot technology but then another technology becomes hotter and you have to adapt. Is the theater world much different? For working actors, the multi-talents seem to have the most success – if there's no work in straight plays, their ability to sing or dance (or run a light board or build sets) enhances their ability to stay employed.

But while thoughts like this may be great for making rhetorical points, they don’t address the grim-ness of the situation for actors. As Rick says, “actors…are a dime a dozen, flown in from New York to live in a dorm for 7-8 weeks with no connection to the community they are working, spending their one day a week off back in New York auditioning for their next gig somewhere else... Our society loves stars and celebrities...working actors are an entirely different breed.”

I think about all of the actors whose work I love and who have already left, or will soon be leaving, Richmond because they can’t make a living here. I also think about an actress like Rita Markova (this blog will not be “all Rita, all the time,” really, I promise). I don’t know Ms. Markova but you can tell from her recent credits that she moves around a bit. She seems like one of the itinerant actors to whom Rick is referring. She is lovely and she has amazing skills. As I mention in my review, she breathes life into a potential two-dimensional role in “Guys and Dolls.” In the Havana scene, it isn’t all about Sky for her. Her increasing abandon isn’t just a loss of inhibitions, it’s a rediscovery of vitality, a sense of relief as she sheds the burden of her mission-related anxieties. She comes to life in that scene and she brightens up the stage when she does.

Someone like Ms. Markova could land a role on Broadway or on a soap or even in movies. But those are often “lightning-strike” type events, rare and hard to predict. Isn’t the American dream about how anyone working hard, with a certain amount of skill and a modicum of luck, should be able to succeed? Should someone have to wait for lightning to strike before they can settle down in one place, maybe raise a family, and make a decent living?

Sad to say, I don’t have any solutions or even many suggestions. But I do know I’ve rambled on here (just as I feared) long enough. So I’ll go ruminate some more and see if I can think of anything helpful to say. In the meantime, please feel free to put forth your ideas.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Opening the spigot

The reportage and musings of expatriate friend Mr. St. Peter about the goings-on at the TCG conference in Denver, particularly his thoughts on Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America,” have been rattling around my brain for a week now. I’m almost afraid to start writing in response because I could see myself getting into subjects that I could ramble on about for pages and pages. Once I open that spigot, I’m not sure how I would plug it back up again.

So I thought I would start with “Guys and Dolls,” knowing that talking about this particular production will eventually lead me into the territory I’m afraid of but maybe, with a little more of a focus, I won’t become reckless or just plain boring.

Among the things that have to be said about G&D is how great the choreography is. When I used the term “Broadway-caliber” in my review, one of the principal things I was thinking of was the ensemble dancing. Not infrequently, even in a really awesome local show, there are ensemble players that are pretty obviously not as skilled as the rest of the crew. It’s a reminder of the challenge local producers and directors have in finding uniformly excellent talent for a show. (I should also mention that there have certainly been shows I’ve been to on Broadway where a chorus member seemed out of their league. It’s just less common in my experience.) But the G&D ensemble does not, as far as I could tell, have a minor leaguer mixed in with the pros. And some of the featured dancers, particularly Mary Page Nance who makes such a splash in the “Havana” number, were true knock-outs.

The male voices were also exceptionally strong. The trio of Jason Marks, Landon Nagel and David Malachai Becker that Susan highlighted in her review for their performance of “Fugue for Tinhorns” provide a great introduction to how great the guys sound throughout the show. Jason may get more of the attention for his Nicely-Nicely -- and its certainly deserved -- but Mr. Nagel (as Benny Southstreet) deserves a shout-out as well. He does great work in fleshing out the vibrant background of this production. As I noted in my review of the Swift Creek Mill production six years ago, if the talent stops with the lead players in G&D, the show just doesn’t have the same zing.

On those lead players: it was great to see Scottie reprise Nathan Detroit. The boy owns the character. And I loved the chemistry between him and Rachel Abrams (not Adams!) as Adelaide. Ms. Abrams does a great job infusing her character with a genuine humanity, making her love for Nathan unmistakable and her weariness at her extended engagement palpable. As far as Ms. Markova is concerned, well, I can’t do much more than sigh at her exquisite beauty and admire the iridescence of her lovely voice. But more on that in a minute.

I’m sorry to say that I was not particularly impressed with Mr. Ashworth as Sky, but my reaction made me realize that in many ways his role is the hardest of the four leads. Sky has to have enough of that elusive magnetism to make goody-goody Sarah fall for him, while maintaining the toughness of a career gambler. As someone said to me on opening night (it might have been my wife), he has to be dreamy (some previous Skys to ruminate on: Marlon Brando, Peter Gallagher, Ewan McGregor, Larry Cook). In contrast I found Ashworth’s performance, well, a bit boring. He does a good job of projecting some vulnerability as his character starts to fall in love with Sarah but, by the “Luck be a Lady Tonight” number, I think that vulnerability has to galvanize into resolve and passion. I didn’t get any of that in the performance I saw.

An aspect of the show that kind of begs to be pointed out is the nearly inexplicable transition from “Marry the Man Today” to the finale. After everything that comes before it, it seems rushed and doesn’t really make sense. It’s a lame-ish ending tacked on to a pretty awesome show, IMHO.

Three of the leading actors in the Barksdale production are from out of town and I’d like to use that fact to transition into a discussion of “How Theater Failed America.” However, I see I’ve already rambled on pretty considerably so that will have to wait for another day. Stay tuned!


Link to Style reviews for "Guys and Dolls" and "Compleat Wrks, etc." has been fixed. FYI.

Also, if you need another "Reefer Madness" fix, it has been extended an additional weekend. There will be a different kind of fireworks at the Firehouse this Fourth of July.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More complete thoughts on "Compleat"

So I've got to think that the folks at Richmond Shakespeare are happy that we seem to be enjoying a respite from 100 degree days for a while. I know the night I was at Agecroft for "TCWofWS(A)," the weather was lovely. And a lovely night at Agecroft is lovely indeed.

There is a way in which the well-constructed silliness of this show defies criticism; it really comes down to execution. And the three guys in this cast do a great job. They all seemed quite comfortable with the loose, improvisational nature of the show. I expected as much from Jeff Clevenger with his many years of Improv experience. But such poise in the younger fellas -- particularly recent VCU grad LaSean Green -- was a delightful surprise. I hope to see more of David Janosik because he was hilarious and some of my favorite moments of this show involved him -- his enthusiastic fake vomiting, the water-in-the-face for Ophelia, etc.

It is often the small, tossed-off things that turn out to be the best aspects of a show like "TCWofWS(A)." The "house lights" -- very nice. Another favorite off-hand moment was the bit about LaSean having to point out that he was black and could play "Othello." It was so random and then just quickly moved past -- also nice.

On the night I attended, I thought it showed some hutzpah for the guys to bring Mr. Haubenstock's husband on stage to play an aspect of Ophelia's psyche -- her id I believe. He seemed game though, and I guess that's what you get for sitting on the aisle!

I had forgotten that there are a couple racy parts in the show; when you lay out those Shakespearean plots without the camoflage of Elizabethan language, there's quite a bit of sex and raunch. Just another of the many reasons Shakespeare is so beloved! I'm hoping to entice one or both of my daughters to go see this show because I think it shows how much fun Shakespeare can be.

Speaking of Shakespeare, I had one of those moments when I wished I lived in New York recently when I was reminded that Lauren Ambrose was going to be Ophelia in the Shakespeare in the Park production of "Hamlet." I've loved her since "Six Feet Under" and, according to at least one fan, she was the best part. Sigh. Oh well, I'll have to be satisfied with Rita Markova in "Guys and Dolls" -- also pretty fantastic.

Quick question on Charcoal Street

Does anyone know whether Charcoal Street would be appropriate for kids -- like in the 7-8 year old range? There's no content advisory on the AART website; in fact, there's no info about whether the show is actually still happening at Dogwood Dell this weekend. Could anybody out there fill me in? I appreciate it!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sir Links-a-Lot

I had been planning to write some supplemental stuff to complement my reviews in today's Style. But work -- work! -- of all things got in the way. So until I can get a sec to wax more elequently on the grandness of "Guys" or the kookiness of "Compleat," here's a couple of other links that you might find interesting.

First, Katie Holmes opens on Broadway in a couple of months. We knew that was happening but check out the little round up of ticket prices at the bottom of this article. Yikes! And here I was thinking $9 movie tickets were getting outrageous.

Also, I was saddened to read about Cyd Charisse's death. She wasn't really a Broadway star -- not appearing on the Great White Way until she was 70 -- but I think that her work in many movie musicals inspired many other dancers who did end up on Broadway.

The Plunge

Ahhhhh...I'm falling....

I've avoided the whole MySpace / Facebook universe for months and months, knowing the scent of a timesuck when I smell it. Well, this past weekend I took a teeny-tiny step in and OMG, I could not have even imagined what a humungous monstrous gargantuan potential timesuck it is. As my family can verify, at one point this weekend I actually had to turn and run away from the computer to save myself. It's so addictive!

I write this because, in my wanderings around the Facebook world, I have probably sent out all sorts of friend messages not totally understanding what I was doing and what the ramifications would be. I can be clueless that way sometimes. So I apologize to any of you theater folks out there who get something Facebook related from me and wonder what the heck I'm up to. I'm just fumbling around trying to figure it out. Thanks for your patience...

Monday, June 16, 2008


There was a little piece of personal irony around the Tonys for me this year. Attending my first ever Tony Awards party (which was a great time -- thanks a bunch, Gray and family) kind of distracted from hearing who actually won. But that's what DVRs and the newpapers are for. Variety had a great recap this morning that filled in all the gaps for me. There's a telling line near the end of the piece though where the phrase "least surprising win" is used. It did seem to me that many of the big awards were pretty easy to predict. I must admit to being floored, though, that Mark Rylance won over the high-powered Hollywood duo of Stewart and Fishburne.

One thought occurred to me when considering the wins for "In the Heights," which is that it's pretty cool that a Latino-centric musical is the toast of Broadway. This is at a time when television in particular is wringing its collective hands about the lack of diversity on network shows. Most egregiously under-represented: Latin-Americans. Isn't it ironic that theater -- frequently looked down on as the realm of elites and an older, moneyed audience -- seems to be taking the lead in terms of artistic diversity?

And to wrap up my personal Tony coverage, this list of "Wow!" moment from previous years' shows is pretty interesting to look through even though the awards themselves are over for this year. Anyone else have any Tony Award thoughts they'd like to share?

Saturday, June 14, 2008


I dragged my poor exhausted wife out to opening night of "Guys and Dolls" last night. She enjoyed the show -- being a lover of the show's music since playing Adelaide in high school -- but I think she would have enjoyed a nice long nap even better.

A night out with my sweetie (even when she's under the weather) enhances any show for me but I had even an additional treat last night. Seated to my left was the lovely and talented Jennifer Meharg, wife of "G&D"'s Nathan Detroit, the lucky and talented Scott Wichmann. Besides being extremely friendly, Jenn is stunningly pretty so while sitting by her and making pleasant conversation, I was kind of feeling like an awkward teenager. Perhaps I'm always a little additionally intimidated by her because the first role I remember seeing her in was "The Secretaries" at RTP where she pretty convincingly played a psycho killer. It looks like she was pretty angry in "Richard II" last year, as well.
If you need a personal trainer, though, don't be intimidated. She's really nice in person.

We availed ourselves of the valet parking at the Empire, which seemed to be quite a hit with the older patrons ( us). The show was everything you'd expect from one of TIV / Barksdale's mainstage productions at the Empire, that is, pretty darn dazzling. Once I've had a chance to get some more specific thoughts down in a review, I'll elaborate. I also had a great time at Richmond Shakespeare's "Compleat Wrks" on Thursday, where I had a chance to chat with critical companions Susan H. and Mary B. It seems as though Susan had a great time as well; check out her review in today's paper.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shows in Shorts

I am thanking the weather gods that the temperature has fallen off a good 10 degrees since last week. It’s projected to be a nearly tolerable 82 degrees at curtain time tonight for “The Compleat Works of Wilm Shkspr (abridged)” tonight at Agecroft. I remember seeing this show at the Barksdale many moons ago with David Bridgewater, Richard Koch and someone else who I can’t recall (Update: as many have pointed out to me, the third actor was Michael Todero) (Update #2: Todaro). I have no idea who Richmond Shakespeare has cast so I truly don’t know what to expect tonight. Except for much zaniness and no small amount of sweat, both onstage and in the house.

I really like eraserhead’s idea, posed as part of the “Critics are not the enemy” discussion, for some kind of ongoing thread of reader-generated conversation at this site. I’ll be exploring options for that over the next week or so and see if I can come up with anything. From collaboration comes progress, right?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


This week's Style "high"lights two types of fantasia, the drug-induced kind featured in "Reefer Madness," reviewed by Ms. Mary B, and a musical fantasia about Richmond appearing in NYC of all places. How I wish it was playing nearby so we could all hear and see the kinds of music our city inspires.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Critics are not the enemy

At one point this past weekend, I worked myself into a good little snit. I think it started percolating a couple of weeks ago when I re-listened to a podcast of Bill Davis (playwright of "Austin's Bridge" from last summer) in which he was asking insinuating questions about the motives and the vetting of theater critics. Then last week I heard an interview where Edward Albee talked about how he’d prefer that his productions not be reviewed because he would rather that people come to the theater without any preconceptions. Then just a couple of days ago, someone who I think is a very talented comedienne called a rave review about her show "terrible" because it included one lame line about our world “where women are not smart or funny” – a line that I at least took to be ironic.

There are plenty of things wrong with the world of theater and live performance but I don’t see critics as being a significant part of the problem. Call me defensive but I don’t understand why some people want to make critics the bad guys (or bad gals). In response to Mr. Davis: I don’t know any critics with an agenda other than wanting to see good stuff that they can write about. In response to Mr. Albee: theatergoers may be art lovers but they are also consumers who are being asked anywhere from $20 to $150 for admittance into a show. Without theater critics you may get fewer people with preconceptions coming to the theater …or you may just get fewer people coming to the theater.

And to my comedienne friend: critics are people, too, and sometimes they write lame stuff. But performers shouldn’t expect a flawlessly written review any more than a critic should expect a flawlessly performed show. Nobody and nothing is perfect; I think judgments should be made with that in mind.

These comments come at a time when critics in general are disappearing. NPR did a story recently about the couple dozen or so movie critics that have been fired or retired recently in major markets. Here in Richmond, there was a time when there were two daily papers, each of which had a full-time staffer doing theater reviews. Now, the T-D has a couple of freelancers.

Movie box office doesn't seem to be suffering because there are fewer critics. But movies have massive marketing machines and movie trailers are ubiquitous on the Internet. For theater, critics are still an important part of getting the word out about a show. Until theater companies can develop their own massive marketing machines, critics will continue to play a key role. There are plenty of theater reviews that I’ve disagreed with or thought were lame in one way or another. But I’ve never read a review that was as vociferous in its sentiments as some of the average audience members I’ve talked to who were disenchanted with a show. A critic (who has usually attended for free) may be disappointed; the average consumer (who has ponied up significant funds for admission) may feel downright cheated.

In my experience, the great majority of theater professionals appreciate critics – if sometimes begrudgingly – for their role in the art / commerce system. But for those few who look at us as the bad guys, I have a question: if theater critics suddenly ceased to exist, do you really think the theater world would be better off?

Monday, June 09, 2008

No Joy in Mudville

There was much sadness in the T-line house as Big Brown seemed to barely make it to the finish line at the Belmont on Saturday. That, plus the death of Jim McKay made for a generally down day sports-wise this past weekend.

I was also a little sad and puzzled that the review for AART’s “Charcoal Street” got pushed over into the Metro section on Sunday. I imagine it’s just a publishing / timing thing but it seemed to me that more theater reviews were actually ending up in the Flair / Arts / Entertainment area – where I kinda think they belong – in recent weeks. Oh well.

Ms. Lewis’s review suggests a strong show and I’m interested and excited about a “raised…bar of expectations for next season.” The “stuttering and stumbling” comment makes me a little wary but I’ll go and be hopeful and see what there is to see.

The best news I’ve received recently is that Jill Bari Steinberg will be “Shirley Valentine” out at Hanover Tavern next month. I’m not sure where that puts her in the local one-person show sweepstakes with Scott Wichmann but, if you count both productions of “Syringa Tree,” I think that might bring her even with Scott at three (“JHH,” “Fully Committed,” “I Am My Own Wife”). Could someone correct me if I’m wrong?

PS: An interesting aside: Here’s a story from a few years ago of an actor who right before doing “Fully Committed” did “Richard III” – the show that Scott’s doing in the fall. Weird coincidence!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Thyme for Rosemary

Having not seen either the cannibalism or the gratuitous sex, my favorite part of "Reefer Madness" may be this picture that Style ran in the calendar section this week. It just about captures how I feel at the end of a long week sometimes.

Anyway, it's been really hard to figure out what else I should say about "A Dash of Rosemary" (still playing at the Mill) because I think my review captured most of my thoughts on the show. I think the expositional structure of the show is a bit annoying. I know these musical revues are just that, revues. I don't expect them to be big on plot or character development. But "Rosemary" is pretty much: "and then this happened...and then this happened...and then this happened." That's all fine but it ends up being fairly boring and surprisingly uninformative because you only have time for so many facts in between all the songs. I learned more about Clooney in the Wikipedia article about her than I did in this show. I've always heard theater is about showing and not telling, and there's quite a bit of telling in this show. This drawback is accentuated by the repeated mentions of Clooney's devotion to her fans or her music. She was obviously not a saint -- nobody is -- but the show seems to be trying to make her out as one.

Having said all of that, I left the show pretty darn happy, mostly -- perhaps solely -- because of the performances. I cannot heap enough praise on Ms. Motley-Fitch; my adjectives just don't do her justice. There's something awe-inspiring about someone who can start a song singing softly and slowly but without wavering and then build up to a full belt without hardly a hiccup, off-note, or pause in between. It's like being in a car that goes from zero to 60 in 10 seconds and the engine never even strains.

I have to agree to some extent with Ms. H in the T-D that it doesn't do Mr. Becker -- who has a perfectly fine voice -- any favors to partner him up with Motley-Fitch and Katrinah Lewis. It does set him up to pale in comparison. But I applaud him for holding his own in the same ring with these two vocal heavyweights. And one thing I like about Brandon is that he seems happy on stage, a trait he shares with Lewis. Because of their on-stage demeanor, the show is never less than pleasant, and often quite delightful.

I used the word "angelic" to describe Ms. Lewis because there's almost an ethereal light around her. Her voice is pitched surprisingly high -- I always expect earthier alto-ish tones from her -- and is sweet and clear. Like Cathy, she also makes the work she does seem effortless. But even with her great singing and bright demeanor, what I'll remember about her in this show were the times she looked more sad or thoughtful. Already a very pretty woman, she looks especially beautiful with a pensive expression, in my opinion.

Well, I guess I did have a couple of things to say about "Rosemary!" Gotta run but just wanted to add, I'll hope everybody will tune in and join me in rooting for Big Brown tonight -- see sports history in the making!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Reefer and Reflection

I’ve heard from at least three different individuals that “Reefer Madness” is a real hoot and shouldn’t be missed. It’s interesting to me that the last few shows that I’ve picked up the most significant buzz about have been the so-called “edgiest:” “Little Dog Laughed” at Barksdale, “Veronica’s Room” at CAT, and now “Reefer” at the Firehouse. It prompts many questions: do edgy shows spur people to do better work? Do these shows seem better because they grab and hold your attention? Are they just more fun to talk about? Will the dust-ups about them spur more people to actually attend performances?

One thing that I think is pretty ironic is that, while some other companies are doing “edgy” material, Richmond Triangle Players is doing a downright tame show right now with “The Two Svengalis.” As was probably evident in my review, I wasn’t blown away by this show. I have enjoyed both Mr. Morton and Ms. McMahon in other productions in the past and they both had their moments to shine in this production. But I think the script saddled the production with a somewhat basic problem: the portrayal of a quick rise to stardom. In my opinion, a show like this works best the more convinced an audience is that the songs and / or the performances portrayed would blow people away, that audiences throughout New York would be enraptured and clamoring for more (I found myself thinking about Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand in the different versions of “A Star is Born”). While some of the songs were amusing, none was transcendent and, while delivered well by Nancy and Kirk, they never knocked one out of the house. Maybe I missed something and the show was supposed to be campy. If that was the case, I don’t think it was quite campy enough because I didn’t pick up on it.

The most enjoyable parts of the show for me involved Nancy’s acting-while-singing. She does an awesome job at projecting attitude and feeling through her inflections and mannerisms and other subtle means. I enjoyed them a lot more than the more obvious bits involving being a flustered young housewife or a jaded, fading film star; Nancy did a good job with them, too, but again this is a script problem: obvious is kind of boring, to me at least. Because of the extremes that Nancy’s character goes through, Kirk’s Ricky is bound to suffer in comparison. He is somewhat forlorn, bitter and sarcastic in the beginning and he ends up there at the end. In between, I didn’t get a whole lot of sense of his excitement / anxiety / interest in their growing fame or anything that diverted significantly from the forlorn, bitter or sarcastic.

This is all just my opinion, of course. As I said in the review, there are several enjoyable bits in the show. In fact, in contrast to Ms. H’s opinion as stated in the T-D, I liked the “Man” medley. Anyone else have an opinion they’d like to share?

My thoughts are pretty scattered right now but I’ll try to gather the “Rosemary” –related ones in the next day or two.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Not Maudlin about Modlin

My reviews for “A Dash of Rosemary” and “The Two Svengalis” are in this week’s Style. The reviews are formatted in a new kind of almost-New Yorker style combination of a couple of reviews that our fearless leader, Brandon, at Style has devised as a way to include coverage of more shows. As a writer, I like the format a lot. What do you think as a reader? I'll have supplemental thoughts about both shows in this space soon.

I was surprised to see that the entire T-D letter to the editor / CAT discussion has been expunged from Barksdale’s blog. It makes sense that it may not be the kind of back-n-forth you want hanging out in cyberspace for ever but still, I didn’t expect it to just disappear. But here at RichmondVATheater, the conversation rambles on! …to the point that I don’t always understand what we’re talking about anymore. I do always appreciate the coherent and respectful arguments of folks like Scott and Andrew, though. If everyone could be as magnanimous while disagreeing, the world would be a better place.

Anyway, moving on: the season for the Modlin Center at U of R was announced over the weekend and there are many events / performances that I think are going to be particularly cool. Number one on my list: February 2nd: “An Evening with Stephen Sondheim.” Oh, it’ll be cool that Sondheim will be there and all. But my favorite part: “Conversation Hosted by Frank Rich!” He’s like a critic superstar! Though I didn’t particularly like his memoir “Ghost Light,” I still ran out and bought it when it showed up on the shelves. I still occasionally comb through his collected theater reviews (“Hot Seat”) and he totally sealed the deal as a critic’s hero by transitioning from theater critic to editorial writer. You all can swarm Stevie for his autograph; I’ll be in line for Frank!

I’m intrigued by the piece called “Music and Torture” and I’m hopeful that perhaps this year, I’ll actually get out to see local superstars like eighth blackbird and Shanghai Quartet. Hope for many things – including peace and tolerance! – springs eternal!

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Search for Elle Woods

I’m sure everyone is setting their TIVOs tonight for the new reality show, The Search for Elle Woods. According to the show’s marketing, “We’re looking for the next blonde to step into Elle’s pink pumps,” meaning to step into the starring role in Broadway’s “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” I’d like to pitch a similar show to the History Channel for the next star of “Thurgood.”

While cruising last night, I came across this interview with Richmond native Emily Skinner who premiered her own cabaret show last night (reprise will be this coming Sunday, in case you are in New York). Thinking of Emily gets me thinking of “Side Show” and my anticipation of the casting announcement for the twins in the Mill’s fall production. Who will it be?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Hair and There

As often as I’ve derided the Times-Dispatch for its lackluster theater coverage in the past, I have to say I’ve been pretty impressed lately. By my recollection, for the last three weeks running the T-D has done a prominent theater-oriented story in their Sunday Arts section, including this week’s piece on “Charcoal Street” which is opening this coming weekend. One thing I think the story fails to mention is that “Charcoal Street” will move from Pine Camp to Dogwood Dell for an additional weekend’s worth of performances at the end of its run. Those kinds of changes of venue are always interesting to me from both a technical and an aesthetic point of view. Way back, I was involved in the move of a production of “Quilters” from the fairly intimate Shafer Street Theatre to the more spacious Empire. I always wondered whether it was quite as powerful in the big space.

The little CAT-Barksdale dustup seems to be working itself out via conciliatory / explanatory posts on the Barksdale Buzz blog, so I guess that’s good. I had a chat with a couple folks about it on Friday, one who commented that they would never have thought that, more than 30 freaking years after “Hair” played in Richmond (and almost exactly 40 years after the show opened on Broadway), that a show like “LDL” would have caused a stir. Perhaps after the current oldest generation of theater-goers (who were untrustworthy 30+ year olds when “Hair” first showed up) moves on we won’t be faced with these kinds of reactions? Call me tacky but I gotta hope it’s a possibility.

While I’m traversing on potentially tacky ground, I’d like to mention in passing something that has nothing directly to do with theater. I am both very excited and somewhat wary about the recent decision in California that will permit gay marriage to proceed, as well as the support of that development by New York’s Governor. I’m excited because I think it is an important step toward establishing this civil right for a consistently persecuted minority. I am wary because I know it will be the kind of divisive issue that some politicians will use to nefarious ends. But so it goes.

More to say but gotta hit the hay!