Saturday, January 29, 2011

David Parsons Dance

Photo: B. Docktor

Years ago I took a friend to see his first evening of dance. Afterward, I asked him what he thought. He said, "Beautiful people doing beautiful things with their beautiful bodies. What's not to like?" He could have been talking about Parsons Dance, at the Joyce theatre through February 6th.

World premiere Portinari, choreographed by Parsons, was inspired by Brazilian painter, muralist and political activist Candido Portinari and is a duet between the artist (the brilliant and seemingly indefatigable Miguel Quinones) and his muse. I (deliberately) did not read the explanation before seeing the piece, and I perceived it as a heartbreaking meditation on grief.

Another premiere, Love, oh Love, choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes to music by Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, explores the push-pull of relationships (including same-gender relationships, a welcome touch) with verve and humor.

From the established repertory, Bachiana, set to Bach's Orchestral Suites and Air on a G String, represents the best of David Parsons: joy and exuberance unfolding like sinuous machinery, each movement leading to the next with graceful inevitability.

And if you haven't seen Parson's signature piece Caught, you really, really, really must. You'll believe a man can fly.

(Seat N1, reviewer comps)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reviewer or Consumer Advocate?

Art & Photo © Susan B. Glattstein

I have decided to start specifying where I sat--and how much I paid to sit there--at the end of every review I write. And here's why:

Have you ever gone to see a well-reviewed show, only to discover that (a) it didn't work from the cheap seats or (b) it didn't justify the cost of the good seats? And did you ever think, well, if I sat where the critics sat, with free tickets, I also might have loved it?

Me too.

There is a saying that where you sit is where you stand, and it can be literally true when critics for
the mainstream media receive comps for the best seats in the house. It doesn't matter to them if there is a dead spot in the back of the orchestra under the mezzanine or if the lead actor's performance doesn't register past the tenth row. They also never have to experience the pain of spending a small fortune to see a show that, well, kinda sucks.

Most of us in the blogosphere are lower on the food chain than the mainstream critics (some of us much lower). Yes, we are fortunate enough to receive comps to some shows, but we still pay to see others. Our seats, like yours, can be anywhere in the theatre.

Theatre is more enjoyable from good seats. That's why they call them good seats. And even a terrible play is not quite as painful when you haven't paid for it, while seeing a wonderful play for free can make you feel like the luckiest person on earth. On the other hand, paying a ton of money can skew an audience member's response to a show. It makes some people determined to have a good time--no matter what. Me? I get angry. That's why I have largely stopped buying expensive tickets. I have yet to see Billy Elliot or Jersey Boys and will probably never see Spider-Man. Is any one show really worth $141.50? (Okay, the Sondheim Celebration at the New York Philharmonic was worth every cent we all paid, but that was an exceptional, exceptional evening.)

As a reviewer, I am vigilant not to let comp tickets influence how I review a show. I admit that I occasionally worry that a negative review will get me blacklisted, but I write the negative review anyway. Otherwise, what's the point? And as I write about shows for which I received comps, I keep their real-world ticket prices in mind. The bottom line is that I strive always to acknowledge the actuality of theatre-going for most theatre-goers.

I guess I've come to feel that being a reviewer is a consumer-advocate position. I know that some critics posit theories that expand one's theatrical experiences, open one's eyes, and blow one's mind, and more power to them. I'm more of the "it's good, here's why, give it a chance" school. And I want my recommendations--and un-recommendations--to be as useful to my readers as possible. And that is why I made the decision to start specifying at the end of each review where I sat and how much I paid to sit there.

One other thing: when I am given reviewer tickets, I will of course honor the embargo not to publish my review until opening night. When I pay for tickets for a preview, I will generally wait until opening night to post, unless there are particular circumstances (e.g., the show is already good or has become news in some way). And if I see an early preview, I will say so.

Here's hoping that the extra information at the end of my reviews will make my reviews more relevant and useful to you.

To readers: Do you have any suggestions on other ways to improve the utility of reviews for you? Please share them if you do.

To other reviewers: What do you think?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Terri White

Terri White does not identify a theme to her show at Feinstein's at the Regency, but it is nevertheless clear: the theme is joy. Not that White doesn't sing a sad song or two, and act them nicely. It's simply that she is bursting with happiness. After some tough times, she now has a happy marriage and a rejuvenated career (including playing Stella Deems in the upcoming Follies in Washington, D.C.) and enough energy to light up a small town or two. Utilizing her strong, attractive voice and a ton of personality, White sings exuberant versions of "Necessity" (which she sang in Finian's Rainbow on Broadway), "I Am Changing" (from Dreamgirls, which she briefly pouts about not being cast in), "When You're Good to Mama" (which she sang in Chicago), and the cabaret favorite "Here's to Life." Her version of "More Than You Know," sung to her wife in the front row, had both women and some audience members in tears. White's patter has some funny moments, and her imitation of Nell Carter singing "Mean to Me" is nothing short of hysterical. White's show could use a bit more polish, and some of her interactions with her band are a little too "in-joke-y." Her voice occasionally falls off of a note or two, and her physical mannerisms can be repetitive. Overall, however, watching her perform is a great deal of fun. White is at Feinstein's again on January 30th. (Note: I had a reviewer's comps and sat to the side.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Short Takes

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. The Mild Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore is far from Tennessee Williams' best work. However, it is involving, funny, sexy, and sad. The situation is familiar: emotionally-needy rich old woman meets financially-needy gorgeous young man. Both are and aren't con artists. Their connection is and isn't genuine. But it doesn't matter. In Williams' world, faux love is better than no love. Olympia Dukakis is uneven but ultimately triumphant as the self-involved, nasty, frightened Flora Goforth. Edward Hibbert, in a piece of inspired casting, does wonders with a role previously played by Mildred Dunnock, Ruth Ford, and Marian Seldes. Director Michael Wilson does a lovely job with unspoken moments but allows a certain thinness to the performances of Darren Pettie in the all-important hunk role and Maggie Lacey as a young widow trapped in a claustrophobically unhappy situation. (Note: I saw a fairly early preview, paid $31.50, and sat in the first row to the far house left.)

The Importance of Being Earnest. The current production of The Importance of Being Earnest isn't earth-shattering, but it is solid and funny. Brian Bedford does well as both director and lead actress. The cast also isn't earth-shattering, but they are all good and they all know how to land their jokes. Perhaps most importantly, the dialogue is about 95% intelligible, which is a very high grade in a Broadway house nowadays. Sitting in the last row of the mezzanine ($10 tickets) at the third preview, I felt completely involved in the show, with none of that sense of distance that often occurs past the tenth row in the orchestra.

[Semi-spoilers below.]

Other Desert Cities.
I am baffled at the superlative reviews that Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities has been receiving. The play is in that dreadful genre of "we must avoid telling the truth until late in the second act or we won't have a show." If the big reveal had been at the end of the first act or even in scene one, Other Desert Cities could have focused on the realities of how long-kept secrets can poison families. Instead, it chooses to move into another annoying genre: "a secret is revealed and, boom, everyone is healed." Stacey Keach rises above the material, Stockard Channing gives an interesting voice performance with no facial expressions (Botox?), Thomas Sadoski does well with an odd character, Linda Lavin is underutilized, and the often-wonderful Elizabeth Marvel flails away to little avail. (I saw an early preview, fifth row center, ~$45.)

Blood From a Stone

Photo: Monique Carboni

Is there anything left to be said about dysfunctional families? If so, Tommy Nohilly hasn't found it. His debut play, Blood From a Stone, with its echoes of Sam Shepard and its unremitting ugliness, is a second-tier grim-a-thon. If you see even a little theatre and/or independent film, you know the drill: the parents hate each other; the father is violent; the mother is angry; one kid is charming but can't be trusted; one got away; and the last, the main character, is more insightful and sensitive than the others--and generally autobiographical. Everyone argues. Drugs are consumed. Punches are thrown. Blood From a Stone does have some compelling and convincing moments, particularly on the rare occasions it shows a little humor, but not enough to justify its two hours and 45 minutes. Ethan Hawke tamps down his usual theatrical exuberance into a subtle, pained, hopeless yet hopeful performance. Natasha Lyonne gives a jolt of energy to the proceedings--she is one of those actors whose very presence brings everything up a notch. Daphne Rubin-Vega does well in a quick scene as the adulterer next door, and Ann Dowd, Gordon Clapp, and Thomas Guiry bring flesh and blood to characters that get only a couple of traits each. (Note: I saw this fifth row, close to center, with free reviewer tickets.)