October 21, 2010

Since it's making the rounds and I've received multiple queries asking what exactly went down, here's my take on the whole Media Theatre thing. And it was so calm around here for a while. 

Yes, Media artistic director Jesse Cline attempted to keep me from reviewing his production of Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical. He then took time during his opening night curtain call to say, "There is a critic here who will probably trash this show." (He was right, but not for the reasons he elaborated. He thinks I hate melodrama; I don't. However, I did leave the production thinking Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical is a load of thick and greasy schmaltz, minus the nutritional value.) He came out to my seat in the audience to continue the discussion, loudly, while jabbing an accusatory finger at my friend and colleague, Jim Rutter (who--poor guy--was also at my left hand when I reviewed Love Jerry). Finally, the company used quotes from my review, out of context, to promote the production in question. So it goes.

But that's not really why I feel compelled to comment on what happened in Mr. Cline's theater. Unless his board of directors feels otherwise, it's Mr. Cline's pulpit, and if he wants to use it for bullying purposes, fine. My editors felt it best to leave out any mention of the incident, and that's also fine. My record with this particular theater shows that despite similar previous antics on their part, I've always reviewed them without bias.

No, my complaint is with Broad Street Review editor Dan Rottenberg, who published a review of the show by Rutter, then insulted him for his conclusions, lack of credentials and professionalism. What Cline did was childish and unprofessional; what Rutter did was his job. If Rottenberg doesn't like the content of Rutter's review, it's his job as editor to return the review for a rewrite, and explain where Rutter's logic doesn't work; having written for Rottenberg once before, I can attest to his willingness to send a journalist back to the drawing board, and make a review better for it. But it's certainly not his job to use one of his writers' articles, an article he's supposedly vetted for its coherence and readiness for viewing, as a springboard for his own attack on that writer. An editor is supposed to have your back, not stab you in it.

Rutter is most certainly a professional, as is evidenced not only by Rottenberg's and others' willingness to pay him for his reviews, but by his own education, experience and acceptance into and participation in the National Endowment for the Arts' Fellowship in Theatre and Musical Theatre. Mr. Rottenberg, I return to the question posed by you and Mr. Cline: Considering Rutter's history of effort of behalf of your publication, why would you want to hurt him?
October 21, 2010 11:59 AM | | Comments (2)
July 21, 2010

Inside the 2010 American Theatre Critics Association conference there was a lot of what's going on outside the conference: hand-wringing about the future of theater criticism. Back in 1999, when I attended my first ATCA confab--conveniently located in Philadelphia--the room was filled with full-time staffers who visibly bristled at the dirty, dirty f-word: freelancer. Just 11 conferences later, I can count the staffers who make their living as full-time theater critics on one hand, and even if I include this year's keynote speaker Michael Phillips, who's technically a film critic these days anyway (no offense, Michael), I'm still not certain that covers every finger. 

(Below: from left, Jay Handelman, Lauren Yarger, Andy Propst, Leonard Jacobs)

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I sat on a panel titled "Critics in the New Age," moderated by Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman, with AmericanTheaterWeb.com founder Andy Propst, ClydeFitchReport.com founder Leonard Jacobs (you may recall him from this Drama Queen-related debacle), Gail Burns, founder of GailSez.org, and Lauren Yarger, whose theater blog Reflections in the Light tackles Broadway reviews from a Christian perspective. Of all the panelists, only Yarger finds herself in the enviable position of having to turn away potential advertisers. The lesson: You gotta have a gimmick. I'm not saying Yarger is cynical or that she doesn't believe wholeheartedly in her mission. It just helps that her mission occupies a clearly-defined niche that appeals to a very specific (and populous) segment of the American theatergoing public. Amen to that, sister!

Andy Propst also suggested a useful idea: ATCA ought to start offering badges to approved theater blogs. Sounds snooty, I know, but here's the thing, in a filthy, crowded internet, it's nice to find a safe bedbug-free haven where you can try out critics' opinions and know they've been vetted for quality control. As Propst said, "it could be like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Any idiot can tell readers what they thought of a play or musical, but it's the job of a qualified critic to provide context, do research and send you back to the review afterward to uncover additional insights. In theory, anyway. 

There's some disagreement about the specificity of those qualifications (blogger Jonathan Mandell discusses them in terms of ATCA membership, but I imagine the criteria would be pretty similar), but I think it's a great idea, and one that could possibly help generate some ad revenue too, since blogs with an imprimatur are--again, in theory--worth more than those without. 

So, are you more willing to read or lend credence to an officially sanctioned critic? And before you respond with a rant about democracy, please remember that official sanction used to come in the form of a paid position. These days, there are critics with 20 and 30 years of professional experience who have been laid off from their newspaper jobs and are now forced to jostle alongside the Yelpers, Tumblrs and Wordpressers. I say it's time to fumigate.  

July 21, 2010 2:05 PM | | Comments (9)
If you can stand any more of this, here are seven minutes from the American Theatre Critics Association's panel on new media, during which Clyde Fitch Report founder Leonard Jacobs, Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman and I run down the Love Jerry debacle, and discuss artist/critic online interaction.

Special thanks to cinematographer/Eugene O'Neill Critics Institute fellow Mark Costello.

July 21, 2010 12:14 PM | | Comments (1)
July 13, 2010

Several of my colleagues--including this year's KCACTF winner Mark Costello--have already begun the two-week-long O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI), and I'm very excited to be headed up there in the morning. This year, from July 14-18, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) hosts its national conference alongside the OCI, and I'll be speaking on a panel about theater criticism and new media. 

For me, it's been an interesting and frustrating e-year--interesting because there are so many more potential ways to disseminate arts coverage than there were even as recently as last year, and frustrating because instead of being mandatory, they're still overlooked by nearly every theater reviewing outlet in Philadelphia. While I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper (including freelancers who, though we have largely replaced staffers, don't get the idea-tossing benefits of regular staff meetings), it hasn't happened yet. 

So here's what I can do something about: the comments section. Although the comments section is generally regarded as the exclusive province of trolls and there's a general rule that you don't feed them, this hasn't been my experience. Perhaps it's because the audience that cares enough to comment on theater is different (*cough* better *cough*) than the audience for stories about sports or politics. And while I occasionally get the reader who just plain calls me a hack WITHOUT USING A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (note to you, dear reader: I am always specific in my critiques), there are far more people who leave a mini-review or call me out with a differing opinion. I also find that when I jump into the fray, it makes for a far livelier conversation with more commenters, and remains active far longer than the usual review.

I've gotten varying opinions on this practice from colleagues. Some say it's a great way to make the review come to life. Others say once a review appears, it's time to let readers do the talking. I've heard from readers grateful that I'm still engaged with the work, and still others who say it's just poor form to get down there in the muck. 

So what do you think? If you're a critic, do you like to engage in discussion with your readers? If you're a reader, do you want to hear from a critic, or would you rather continue the conversation on your own? 
July 13, 2010 4:18 PM | | Comments (7)
June 9, 2010

love jerry.JPGThere's been some controversy over a show I reviewed this week, Megan Gogerty's Love Jerry. But before that, there was a censorship controversy over an ad for the show, which Philly.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer's online umbrella, refused to run. Controversy is also built into the show's DNA. Love Jerry is about a pedophile. It's a musical about a pedophile. It asks whether we can forgive and love a pedophile despite what he's done. 

So I answered no, and a crapstorm erupted the likes of which I haven't seen since I trashed Respect: A Musical Journey of Women. Seriously. One might think Nice People Theatre Company (NPTC), producers of this piece (it first appeared at the New York Musical Theatre Festival), would have been prepared for some dissenting opinion. I mean, The Little Mermaid, this ain't. NPTC asked their supporters to comment on my review, which they did with an outpouring of vim and vitriol, then asked the Inquirer to remove the review from Philly.com's website--ironic because, well, you know. The show's admirers (and there appear to be many) accuse me of dismissing the production on principle. I'd argue they're doing the same with my review, and here's why.

I believe this script is fundamentally flawed, that the questions it raises are the wrong questions (and yes, I believe that on this topic there is a clear right and wrong approach) and the answers it suggests are the wrong answers. After all, love, therapy and forgiveness is the same cocktail the Catholic church claims it served up while managing its pedophile priests, and look how successful that's been for the church and its young victims.

Of course Gogerty didn't set out to be an apologist for child abusers, but I do think she mishandles the topic. The film The Woodsman is marginally more successful because by the time it begins, Kevin Bacon's pedophile Walter has already been judged and condemned, has been held personally responsible for his actions (despite whatever his backstory may be), and now must rebuild his life from its ashes. Gogerty presents Jerry as a sympathetic victim, a character who made a forgivable mistake, and that's a huge problem. Were the production elements solid? Sure. Was the script well-crafted? For the most part. Is it useful that NPTC has talkbacks after the show and partnered with CAPE? Amen. Can theater ask tough questions and further the cultural conversation? Hell, yeah. But can I endorse a concept and a musical that I find irresponsible and even dangerous? No way.

The part of this crapstorm that really fouls my airspace is that NPTC and Gogerty claim they wanted this show to be a catalyst for discussion, for "honest open dialogue" on the issue. As it turns out, all they wanted was agreement, and that hurts their cause and their credibility more than any negative review ever could.

Update: Please visit The Clyde Fitch Report for even more on this issue. 
June 9, 2010 1:24 PM | | Comments (23)
May 17, 2010

Clearly I was behind the curve on this idea. Credit goes to professor Christopher Holmes Smith at USC Annenberg for uncovering USC Berkeley a cappella group DeCadence's YouTube treasure. Glee can't be far behind.

May 17, 2010 2:41 PM |
May 16, 2010

Since I never got around to posting my critique of American Idiot for the Broad Street Review, the show's Best Musical Tony nod and an article by Jon Pareles in today's New York Times seem as good excuses as any to get it up here. But that's not really my purpose today.

Pareles, as a pop music critic, doesn't generally cover theater. And let's face it, it's kind of depressing that a journalist who's been covering rock since the '70s only now feels that the form is reaching a critical mass on the Broadway stage. Seems sort of an exercise in emphasizing how woefully out of touch with popular culture Broadway has become. But to me--and mind you, I love me some Green Day--the less obvious discussion is this: will it take another 40 years before hip-hop makes a dent on Broadway? I guess In the Heights tossed rap into its bag of tricks, but that show's cockeyed optimism only scratched the surface of hip-hop's depth and potential. 

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It's true commercial hip-hop is in a fallow period right now, with teenybopper pop/rap crossovers dominating the airwaves, but there's certainly no shortage of a back catalog or hungry up-and-comers. With players such as rapper Jay-Z and Jada Pinkett Smith--yeah, her own band favors thrash metal, but c'mon son, her husband's Will Smith, king of populist hip-hop--getting into the producing game (for Fela!) things might soon change. However, if and when they do, Broadway will still be years behind Hollywood, which already mined the genre and its artists for years. I mean, even Vanilla Ice got his own movie way back in 1991.

Eric Rosen and Matt Sax's Venice--a rap version of Othello--is currently bringing some buzz, and its appearance in October at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre might serve as a launching pad for even wider success. And maybe it will take two white kids assimilating rap into Shakespeare for other producers to be open to that music's inherent potential. But it's just plain astonishing that no one has bothered to dig into the operatic rise and fall of Eazy-E, or built a blow-your-mind jukeboxer around Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death (free idea: round out the score with some Li'l Kim), or hired Queen Latifah to do in a jewel box what she does best in arenas, or tapped Lil Wayne or Outkast, or hey, the Jigga man himself, to add their particular musical vision to the American Songbook.


May 16, 2010 9:01 AM |
April 4, 2010

After all this time, I finally saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson again in its current run at the Public Theater. I wanted to see it again so badly I even paid for tickets--Paid. For. Tickets. Believe me, if you're a critic, that's a big deal. If you're a Philly critic, taking money away from a Philly theater and spending it, you know, *there*, it's an even bigger deal--and here are a few reasons why:
  1. I wanted to see if I thought it had a shot at a Broadway run, because sooner or later, if Broadway ignores Les Freres Corbusier, it will do so at its own peril. I just wasn't sure if this was the show to take them there.
  2. I wanted to see if this musical that resonated so deeply during W's tenure would have the same cathartic punch under Obama.
  3. I wanted to see if it lived up to my own hype. After all, I've devoted a lot of blog space to one show I saw almost three years ago. (Below: BBAJ, circa 2008)
BBAJ08.jpgHere's what I concluded:
  1. No, I do not think this is the show that will take the boys and their swaggering Jackson, Ben Walker, to Broadway. But it's a lot of fun, and Director/playwright Alex Timbers is a veritable Wallenda when it comes to walking the line between wide-eyed and winking. BBAJ itself rests between Schoolhouse Rock and Drunk History, and doesn't even make you pick a side; enjoy them both, AND walk away with a lesson. That's value for your entertainment dollar. Composer Michael Friedman's musical moments--because they're not whole songs, although they are insanely catchy verses--burst furiously through the script much like the emotions of a bratty adolescent, which is appropriate, considering Timbers' Jackson is portrayed as a wrist-cutting emo rock star. But it's still too messy, and though scenes such as the one in which an actress snarls out a tune about "10 Little Indians" who meet an untimely end, are better integrated this time (at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre, the song stopped the show dead; here, it's set against a parade of soon-to-be-broken treaties), I just don't think it can--or should--clean up all that well. Oskar Eustis did the right thing by bringing it back for a mainstage run, and that's a pretty great legacy, well deserved. It's not the game-changer I thought it could be, but I'll tell you this much, if I weren't a theater critic, I'd gladly be an investor in whatever project LFC take on next, because I have no doubt a game-changer will emerge from BBAJ's raw material and LFC's momentum.
  2. No, it's not the same under Obama, although you can't fault Timbers for trying. Imagine, if you can bring yourself to do so, that it's early 2008, George W. Bush is deep into his second term as president, post-Katrina FEMA trailers are exhaling formaldehyde, the Iraq war is still racking up American casualties, and onto the stage struts Andrew Jackson, whining, drinking, indulging his expansionist fantasies, ignoring the collateral damage, singing populism's praises. The parallels are as powerful as your frustrations, and you are grateful to see them both portrayed onstage in this way--those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it, etc. Now it's 2010, and though yes, Obama was swept into the presidency on a wave of popular support, his election was a reaction to Bush's populism, just as Bush's populism was a reaction to Clinton's perceived chardonnay-drinking, Volvo-driving elitism (remember that?). It's just not the same, and aiming Jackson at Obama only serves to untie the show from its moorings. I get it, the people's desire for a hero to swoop in, make decisions and save the country is timeless. But BBAJ's genius lay in the way it equated the mass appeal of bratty, insolent, obdurate Jackson with, well, that of bratty, insolent, obdurate Bush. Now, as a parallel to the Obama presidency, it sends a disappointing mixed message--disappointing especially because its original message was so forceful and dead on (AJ would have wanted it that way!), while the Botox applied to this version seems more like a hedged bet. Maybe if we ended up with a McCain/Palin regime and the show stuck to its roots, it would have blown up Broadway. But honestly, I'm glad we didn't have to find out. 
Yes, it lives up to my hype, but more for what it signals than for what it delivers. BBAJ is musical theater with ADHD. Unmedicated ADHD. And btw, that's a compliment. It's exciting, honest, impulsive, sexy, smart, silly. It's imperfect, but also, sometimes it's perfect. If Broadway musicals were half as unpredictable and thrilling as this one, I might even crack open my wallet and head up the turnpike more often. That is, as long as there's nothing too exciting happening here in Philly. 
April 4, 2010 8:25 PM |
March 4, 2010

I'm not going to go on and on about how much I love Les Freres Corbusier anymore, or talk about how Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is about to open on the Public Theatre's mainstage, or even about how excited I am that I got tickets to see it, since I was shut out when it appeared during the Public's LAB series a few months ago. 

I don't have to say any of those things because Les Freres Corbusier found someone who's even more excited than me about the show's return.

And p.s., I'm not saying this has anything to do with BBAJ composer Michael Friedman's involvement in The Civilians' new porn musical, but I dunno, it's maybe influenced by all that research.


March 4, 2010 12:55 PM |
January 17, 2010

The 2010 Region II Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival O'Neill Critics Institute winner is...

Villanova University graduate Student Mark J. Costello (From now on, he'd like to be referred to by his professional name, "SarcMark").
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Our alternate is Muhlenberg College freshman Amy Asendorf.
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But really, all the students are winners. Under ordinary circumstances that might sound pretty trite. However, these weren't ordinary circumstances. The class' late nights, early mornings, dedication to the work, and support for one another was remarkable. The night they wrote their final reviews, they also critiqued a group speed-writing exercise, tweeted with me about the assignment at 3 a.m., and still showed up early for our 9:30 a.m. class. I mean, I took writing workshops in college, and I guess we must have worked, but I sure don't recall anyone working like that.

Much thanks and deep respect to this year's critics, and also to over 2,000 people who followed the critics' progress on this blog; it was really helpful and motivating for these new, young writers to know they had a built-in audience. 
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Also, special thanks to Clarion College English professor Ralph Leary, tireless organizer of the OCI and one of the few people on earth who every year spends a week with a room full of critics and still walks away with glowing reviews.
January 17, 2010 8:00 PM | | Comments (1)

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About Wendy Rosenfield, Drama Queen Wendy Rosenfield is a freelance arts and lifestyle features writer and theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was previously chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly...

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