Friday, September 28, 2012

In the Weeds

Yeah, that’s where I’m buried right now. Have seen a lot of great theater lately, read a lot of great reviews, and have been talking to folks about some great things that will be happening at the RTCC awards in just 2 (gulp) weeks! One item just came up out of the blue just the other day that I am particularly excited about – because it’s a great idea and I didn’t have to do anything at all to make it happen! Just rest assured: something hot off the presses will be available at the RTCC awards that you will NOT want to miss out on.

Because I don’t have any time to write much right now, I’m posting links to a bunch of reviews below plus a preview of “Night Blooms” at Virginia Rep that sounds very intriguing. My review of “A Bright New Boise” will be out next week.

I should also have a review of “King John” in Style but since it won’t be out for a week and a half, let me give this little teaser: prepare for some length and some historical bits that are relatively confusing (what Shakespeare history is not?). But you should go see this play because of many things: Todd A. Schall-Vess has built out the St. Catherine’s stage into something with impressive depth and height, the sound design is haunting and beautiful, several people give highly-charged scenery-chewing performances, Ryan Bechard stalks the stage and the house in a truly sexy-creepy way that keeps things interesting, and David Janosik delivers a remarkable and thoroughly entertaining portrayal of “the Bastard” that I will return to in my memory for many months, I expect.

So go see it. And if you want to read other peoples’ opinions of this and other shows, here’s where else you can go:

   Style preview of “Night Blooms
   My review of “Hound of the Baskervilles
   TD review of “Regrets Only
   TD review of “King John
   TD review of “A Bright New Boise
   TD review of “The Marvelous Wonderettes
   GayRVA review of “The Marvelous Wonderettes
   GayRVA review of “Hound of the Baskervilles

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It’s a New Dawn, It’s a New Day

Well damn, there is just too much to talk about for me to really do anything justice. It’s another one of those weeks where I wish I was a full-time journalist (there’s still some of those out there, right?) so I could write it all up. Instead, I’m going to have to do bullet points:

**  There are just a few more hours left in the Amazing Raise. If you support theater anyway, do it now and you could add some nice little bonuses to your favorite company’s bottom line.

** I saw “Always…Patsy Cline” before it closed and wanted to wax poetic about Debra Wagoner’s voice and Terrie Moore’s comic chops. But now that it’s closed, I guess there’s no point in trying to get people out to see it. It was a fun show and a good time.

** I saw “The Hound of the Baskervilles” this past weekend and had a fine time. My review should be in next week’s Style and I’ll supplement that with more thoughts when the review is out.

** Speaking of Style, this week’s fall arts issue has a quick review of all of the pro theaters that have published a season, including Sycamore Rouge that (good news) will be moving to a new venue and AART (uncertain news) which has a slate but no dates.

** I just saw that the cast from “The Marvelous Wondrettes” will be at this month’s GLAP, even more reason than usual to try get out and take part in that monthly party.

** Tonight is the beginning of a pretty overwhelming weekend of openings, one particularly frustrating for a critic. I’d love to see all of the shows opening (“Regrets Only” at RTP, “A Bright New Boise” at Firehouse, and “King John” by Richmond Shakespeare at St. Catherine’s) but have to pick one. After VA Rep’s raises the curtain on their latest next weekend (“Night Blooms” previewed in the T-D and “Young Thomas Jefferson”) things calm down for a couple weeks and maybe I can catch up.

** Fall means the new TV season has started as well. I’ve kept my distance from the ridiculous proliferation of talent & singing shows but I did catch a whiff of the buzz that came from “X Factor”’s new phenom, Carly Rose Sonenclar. She does indeed have an amazing voice (check out the video linked to from this article) but it’s worth noting that she was hardly an unknown quantity. At the ripe old age of 13, she’s already appeared on Broadway a couple of times, even getting a specific mention in the NYTimes for her work in “Wonderland.” Just another endorsement of theater as a breeding ground for stars…

I’m traveling this weekend so may have a chance to do some more writing / blogging. Consider this either a promise or a threat…

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why critics don’t matter…and why they do

After the announcement of the RTCC nominations, there is always a flurry of activity for me which also coincides with the madness of “back to school” week. The dust from all that has almost settled so there is this brief lull before the explosion of fall openings, starting with a new round of “Wonderettes” at the Mill and the unleashing of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the Tavern this weekend.

Into that lull, I’d like to throw an observation from another artistic realm into the mix. The last couple of films I’ve seen at the actual movie theater share an interesting characteristic. A few weeks ago, the family “took me out” for my birthday and we selected “ParaNorman” as a rare “good for the whole family” kind of movie: a horror movie scary enough for teens, smart enough for adults, but animated so easily digested by the youngest in the crowd. This past weekend, I took the boys out to see “Premium Rush,” starring “The Dark Knight Rises”’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a NYC bike courier who inadvertently ends up in a bind with the local cops.

Both movies were much better than I would have expected. And my expectations were pretty high because both movies were almost universally praised by the critics. “ParaNorman” got an 87% positive rating from RottenTomatoes and had people like Bruce Diones from the New Yorker saying, “The film avoids the pandering of many animated features, bringing an acerbic edge and a thrilling intelligence to its story.” In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips said, “Premium Rush" is great fun — nimble, quick, the thinking person's mindless entertainment” and it has a 76% positive rating.

The one factor that lessened my expectations was that both movies have done relatively dismal business at the box office. After being in theaters a month, “ParaNorman” has brought in $45 million ($65 if you add in foreign receipts) versus a $84 million budget. That is third the amount (or less) earned by the sequels recycled as part of other big animated series that opened this summer (Madagascar #3: $215 million; Ice Age #27?: $158 million). In three weeks, “Premium Rush” has scored less than $17 million. It’s hard to know what exactly to compare “Rush” to but the box office tabulators put in the category of “On the Run” thrillers, a category that includes movies like “The Bourne” franchise, the latest sequel of which has earned nearly 10 times what “Rush” has.

So what gives? People regularly complain that there is nothing original at the movies and what comes out is just regurgitated sequels and mindless action or horror. But then movies like these two come out, the critics rave about them, and hardly anyone goes to see them.

One simple conclusion to draw is that critics don’t matter. Their opinions – whether pro or con – pale in comparison to the marketing juggernauts that are the real determining factors in whether a movie succeeds or fails. The two movies I saw recently didn’t succeed commercially because they weren’t marketed well or they opened at the wrong time. They didn’t find their audience because their audience didn’t even know the movies existed and critical support wasn’t going to change that.

I think this is conclusion is probably valid. I have no idea why a movie like “ParaNorman” is opening at the end of the summer versus pre-Halloween. “Rush” arrived as summer vacations transitioned into the back-to-school frenzy. I might have seen one ad for each movie but, even if there was a “Dark Knight” style blitz going on, I probably would have missed it. Similarly, I wasn’t reading reviews at the end of August. I was trying to finish reading a summer novel and looking over supply lists for school. It’s hard not to think these movies weren’t doomed before they even opened.

But still… even though it opened pretty badly, “ParaNorman” has stuck around for a month, not plummeting quite so quickly as other late summer releases like “Total Recall” or (ugh) “Sparkle.” And, from what I can gather, among the pre-teen and teen boy crowd, “Rush” has a moderately fervent following. In the “ParaNorman” case, I’d conclude that there has to be a fair amount of parents out there like me who were dealing with kids who still wanted to see movies even though school was open. And when they went to see what was out there, they went to see what the critics had to say. And even though the title might not have been familiar, they chose something critics were saying good things about. In the “Rush” case, I expect some sub-17 year olds have had to ask their parents to take them to see the movie and the responsible ones checked the Internet to see if it was good. And reading the raves, they might have decided “Rush” was a good choice.

So critics may not have the power to move audiences toward or away from specific movies in the way they might have been able to in the past. But they still serve an invaluable service: providing insight on the potential return a patron might expect from their $10 investment in an unknown or unfamiliar movie.

This is an important conclusion to draw, in my opinion, because of the extrapolation to theater criticism. I don’t think a rave for a local stage production is going to bring scores of people into the theater or that a pan is going to keep everyone away. But with theater, the proportion of unfamiliar titles is much higher and the dollar investment in a ticket is usually higher. So while the value of arts criticism may be diminished from what it was years ago, it’s not quite worthless yet.