Why theater reviews need more than six paragraphs
I don't know Carol Furtwangler, but I'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about. She's the Post and Courier's theater critic (in Charleston, S.C.) and she turns reviews around on a regular basis. Problem is, she doesn't have much room to do a proper job.
For Fiddler on the Roof, a production that opened Friday and that was the first time the Charleston Stage Company had collaborated with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, her review got six paragraphs. By the time she'd finished with the requisite exposition, there was little inch-count to make a sound judgment.
I know what this is like. When I was a daily reporter, I wrote reviews that we shoehorned into the smallest of spaces. Aware of space restrictions, and cynical about being cut even further by insensitive copy editors, I wrote tight without much nuance, even if that meant veering into hyperbole.
In Furtwangler's case, she leads by saying Fiddler on the Roof was "a triumphant production," but doesn't expound. Inference does the work for her: The very fact that Charleston Stage did this big, ambitious, and expensive project with the CSO made it triumphant. The next five graphs of the review were devoted to who did what and when -- in other words, the exposition.
I have to give the P&C credit: It devotes space to the arts. I spent years writing overnight reviews that ended up near the obituaries. That's pretty disheartening. Though Furtwangler's reviews are small, at least they are present. And they are present on page 2A -- a great endorsement for the arts.
Still, why not more? Furtwangler's review had to compete with wire copy from the Associated Press, stories on J.K. Rowling's suing of a Potter fan and Frank Sinatra Jr. getting a star on the Walk of Fame (with a large picture that takes up a lot of space). From a editorial perspective, one has to weigh the value of copy. For my money, the local theater review is the most valuable. The other stuff can be found elsewhere, but a newspaper can't buy a local theater review from the wires. That's unique and therefore the most valuable.
I could talk about how daily newspapers don't get it (that it's not enough to put material out there; that they must also engage readers in order to keep them), but I think the P&C does a pretty good job. Like I said, at least the arts are present in the paper. Other publications are doing away with them altogether.
The problem with tight space is this: Furtlanger wasn't able to be accurate. It is indeed a triumph of sorts for a city's professional orchestra to accompany a city's largest professional theater company. But that isn't enough.
I attended the opening of Fiddler. The show was not triumphant. I would say that it could have been triumphant, that it had all the ingredients for triumph, but it was far from that for one key reason: John Fennell, the lead actor (pictured).
Aside from a passel of debits (uneven pacing, stalled momentum, that dreaded sound problem that continues to plague Charleston Stage shows) and bevy of credits (great costumes, a terrific dream scene, and touching chemistry between actors, especially between Tevye and Golda), Fennell just couldn't sing well.
Maybe he was sick, I don't know. But his singing voice was bad. His acting was superb. He was very, very funny. But his singing? Not good. With his character playing a central role in the story, and with the CSO providing the music to which this central role sang, the collaboration was hardly triumphant.
I would give this show a mixed review. (So did CP critic Kinsey Labberton. She noted the sound problems and Fennell's lackluster performance. She also asked why choose Fiddler when a historic collaboration between two major arts groups in Charleston was an opportunity to be really daring. A fair observation.)
Because it's the obligation of the critic to explain himself when leveling a mixed review, he or she requires space. Without that, you're stuck giving a mere thumbs up or thumbs down. If Furtwangler wants to try her hand with the City Paper, we'd give her the space she needs. She's welcome to call me anytime.
Like I said, I think we'd have a lot to talk about.
Cross-posted from Unscripted.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog