The Blogger-Critic: Or, Why Do I Write?

27 07 2010

What does it mean to be a blogger-critic? On Bitter Lemons, this question has become a common point of contention. It has arisen again in the comments following Colin Mitchell’s recent post “Is It a Critic’s Job to ‘Assist’ and ‘Protect’ a Production?” – a great article with a fascinating follow-up discussion.

I have been thinking about my position a a blogger-critic quite a lot lately. The summer has sent me across the country for several extended trips: I was in NYC for an off-off-Broadway musical premiere in early June, and now I am in NC to visit family and friends. Because of this off-kilter schedule, I have been on “theater binges” whenever I have been in LA, cramming in as many shows as possible before my next trip away from the city. I always jot down post-show notes in my journal, but then other responsibilities, shows, and trips crowd my calendar – and my blogging gets backed up. This sometimes leads me to ask impossible questions like:

Who is reading this blog? Am I letting anyone down (other than myself) if I fail post reviews on a regular basis? Is it worth it to write a review of a show that has already closed? Why do I write, and does it matter?

I suppose I wouldn’t have started a blog if I believed that it didn’t matter, but the nagging question is always there – especially when I haven’t posted in several weeks. (Guilty.) What does it mean to be a blogger-critic?

Perhaps the beauty of the blogger-critic is that every individual has a different motive for writing. I am not paid to blog; I choose my own shows and buy my own theater tickets, I blog (or fail to blog) on my own schedule. But for me, writing is a quintessential way of thinking. I have always processed ideas best through writing (and rewriting). Since I am studying for a PhD in theater, a blog is a wonderful way to record my thoughts about productions and to actively practice theater criticism – but a blog also allows for a more personal engagement than my normal scholarly work. Some may find my theatergoing and reviewing to be self-indulgent – and it is, to a degree. If you follow my blog, you know that I write about myself; I’m an unabashed, gleeful, overly-optimistic musical theater lover and aspiring composer. This is my lens on theater and my lens on life. On this blog, you’re getting both. (If you don’t like it … don’t read it.)

Unlike a critic who has been hired by a specific publication, I have no desire to be an authoritative, objective reporter deciding whether or not you should see a show. I offer legitimate theater criticism – in the first person. But this is perhaps another beauty of the blogger-critic. There is an undeniable person behind this blog, and hopefully I am here to engage in a conversation rather than a one-sided report. I recently received a great comment and follow-up e-mail from Jonathan of, who had enjoyed my review of American Idiot. My thoughts on the show spurred him to do some independent research comparing the price of Green Day concert and Broadway show tickets; we had a nice e-mail exchange about the economics of it all, complete with bar graphs! (FYI: On average, patrons spend more on American Idiot tickets than Green Day concerts in the secondary market, although the difference in venue sizes and availability makes the comparison a little difficult.)

Now this is why I blog. To offer up my own perspective so that it can interact with other opinions. Bitter Lemons is continually encouraging such dialogue and critique, offering multi-faceted perspectives on the productions and politics of the LA theater community. Even as I bounce from coast to coast this summer, I am always reading, Colin and Enci!

I mentioned earlier that writing is my best way of thinking – and sitting down and forcing out this blog entry has really done a world of good for my motivation. I may be behind on my reviewing this summer, but I will eventually get around to writing about all of the wonderful productions I have seen on my recent theater binges. Even if the reviews are “outdated,” the theater always bears writing about, thinking about, and talking about. I hope you’ll help me keep up the conversation!

A Chorus Line: Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 7/3/10

7 07 2010

My usual difficulty with the Morgan-Wixson Theatre – the use of canned music – somehow fades into the background during their most recent production, A Chorus Line. Perhaps a dance musical makes the prerecorded tracks less troublesome – but more likely, the talent and enthusiasm of this troupe of auditioning actors and dancers keeps the show continually dynamic.

Based on tape-recorded interviews by original director/choreographer Michael Bennett, this 1975 concept musical gives voice to the often undifferentiated Broadway gypsies, the mechanically-synced background to the “one singular sensations” of the musical theater stage. The Morgan-Wixson boasts an undeniably young, but remarkably talented and mature ensemble – and each individual has his chance to shine. Mike (Erik Bradley) kicks the show off with a light-hearted “I Can Do That,” pitch-perfect and accompanied by a suave Gene Kelly combination. While my focus is typically drawn to musical numbers, Eric de Anda holds the audience captive with his monologue as the young gay man Paul in the second act. The intimate house heightens his uncomfortable grappling with identity, as well as the vulnerability of the audition process.

After all, the auditioning dancers are forced into these confessionals by the director on the (appropriately-named) God mic at the back of the house: Zach (Michael Heimos), who offers an impressive bit of voice acting. While Zach should have been cast younger to match his ex Cassie (Ashley Matthews), or Cassie cast older to match Zach, both offer outstanding performances – particularly evident in Cassie’s head-flipping solo, “Music and the Mirror.”

Despite these star moments, the musical is perhaps even stronger when agglomerating these dancers’ experiences into ensemble numbers, reflective of a genuine theatrical community. Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie (Elizabeth Hunter, Brittany Sindicich, and Michelle Akeley) recall how they used to project themselves into the beauty of dance in “At the Ballet,” accompanied by a choreographed dreamscape. When the only black auditionee Richie (Jacob Nixon) takes center stage to recall his basketball glory days, the stage erupts in disco lights, vibrant dancing, and genuine fun – blurring the lines between characters and performers.

As expressed in the talkback, A Chorus Line resonates with performers on a much more personal level than most shows; many would drop everything to be a part of such a truthful production. Directed, music directed, and costume designed by Anne Gesling, the Morgan-Wixson’s production pays undeniable tribute to the original Broadway production with book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Edward Kleban. Costumes come as close as possible to the original ensemble’s now-iconic attire, while Hector Guerrero’s choreography – beautifully interwoven with Gesling’s direction – draws directly on Michael Bennett’s movement vocabulary while opening into more innovative dances to showcase this particular cast’s unique talents and abilities. The Morgan-Wixson truly deserves the attention and success that this production has been receiving so far, and I hope this energy and enthusiasm can be sustained for next year’s season!

American Idiot: St. James Theatre, 6/18/10

7 07 2010

I could easily reduce this review to a tweet: American Idiot was LOUD.

I struggled to process most of Michael Mayer’s new rock opera based on Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award-winning punk album. Overamplified both aurally and visually, American Idiot yells for the audience’s attention. This “love child of RENT and Spring Awakeningoffers a hyper-energetic and multi-talented cast raging around an eclectic, multimedia playground for a nonstop 90 minutes. The most political, memorable moments occur when the rock concert is pulled back to an intimate acoustic level; unfortunately, these moments of genuine engagement are few and far between.

With a mash of video projections and scattered TV screens projecting the world in channel-jumping political turmoil, designer Darrel Maloney washes the relatively spare set in this appropriately bombarding aesthetic. The musical’s characters don’t want to be American idiots, but find themselves assaulted by impenetrable politics in the era of George W. Bush. The fragmentary narrative strands – a bum dad stuck in the suburbs, a druggie who travels to the city and back, and a young soldier wounded in Iraq – are primarily progressed by Mayer’s vibrant images and Steven Hoggett’s innovative choreography, rather than connective dialogue.

While some critics have complained about the lack of fully developed characters and narrative throughlines, I found some of Mayer’s imagistic direction to be even more piercingly memorable and effective than a traditional story – particularly for the soldier Tunny, portrayed by Stark Sands. Tunny is recruited by a sharp military official and his alluring red, white, and blue backup dancers in “Favorite Son.” War turns out not to be so sexy, however; after being wounded, Tunny and other soldiers in the hospital perform a softer, contemplative round reminiscent of Rent‘s “Will I?” With the soldiers strapped to their gurneys, “Before the Lobotomy” is an engaging respite from the relentless motion and raging noise of American Idiot. As the druggie Johnny, the pitch-perfect John Gallagher Jr. also has a few self-accompanied acoustic moments that linger in memory.

Tom Kitt’s arrangements of Green Day’s music translate to the stage beautifully, and the powerhouse ensemble has a seemingly endless well of energy for this vocally and physically demanding production. But the endless motion – like the blaring set and overamplified sound – builds to an assault on the audience’s senses. What’s more, American Idiot is a rock opera of endless ironies. This show strives to be politically engaged, but complains more than it engages. The representation of women is incredibly problematic; women are nothing more than sex objects – and most of them are nameless, like Watsername and The Extraordinary Girl. In a dream sequence, Princess Jasmine – dressed in a particularly Orientalist harem outfit – flies down from the rafters to seduce the soldier in Iraq. The theater also serves specialty drinks to take in to the performance (“St. Jimmy’s Wild Ride,” “Letterbomb,” and “A Shot of Novocaine”) that may put audience members in the same physical condition as the onstage characters: too wasted, or at least too much in the mind of pleasure, to actually process the politics. We really are American idiots, aren’t we?

American Idiot rages with great force and energy, but I am still not sure what it is raging about – or why the critics are raving. Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot … these are supposedly the musicals for the next generation. I must have been born in the wrong era. Nonetheless, I can appreciate American Idiot‘s attempt at creating an engaging new work: it certainly is pulling in and captivating many younger patrons, who will hopefully become regular theatergoers as a result.

La Cage aux Folles: Longacre Theatre, 6/17/10

1 07 2010

Before college, I only remember going to the theater twice: my family splurged on the national tour of West Side Story when I was in middle school, and my high school took a field trip to an NC Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both times, I was enthralled – but my access to theater was limited in Albemarle, NC. When I moved away to college, I took advantage of every opportunity to see and study theater, and I started to develop this valuable but sometimes pesky little thing called a critical lens. Hundreds of shows later, I’m still developing that critical lens and I enjoy putting it into practice here on my blog – but I sometimes get nostalgic for those days when I could turn the critical lens off and simply be enthralled by a good production.

Enter La Cage aux Folles, 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical Revival. Maybe my critical lens was just tired; after all, I was getting over a terrible cold and had been pushing myself to the max with the West Village Musical Theatre Festival, countless Broadway shows, and long catch-up chats with my NYC-based friends. But after seeing La Cage, I was simply left with the warm afterglow of a classic musical comedy. I wanted to preserve that exuberance without dissecting the show into its parts. This production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical left me with a feeling, rather than words.

Still, I felt the imperative to write something, to perhaps capture a bit of the glow. Here are the sketchy notes that I forced out of my pen – rather incoherent and almost all raves:

  • possibly the best show of the trip!
  • classic musical comedy construction, hilarious
  • STAR performances, esp. Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin de Jesus
  • choreography is stunning, loved the audience interaction
  • set design very simple and classic, lighting unobstrusive, lots of spotlighting!
  • genuinely appreciative and engaged audience
  • the cast has so much fun!
  • loved the musicians in boxes to the sides of stage, more interactive
  • not the greatest voices per se (esp. Grammer), but SUCH life and enthusiasm!

In the guise of a simple musical comedy, La Cage aux Folles grapples with complex issues of gender and sexuality.  Based on Jean Poiret’s 1973 play, the densely-layered musical probes alternative constructs of family, a subject of continuing relevance in the current fight for gay marriage.  Chaos ensues when Jean-Michel brings his fiancee’s conservative parents home to meet his family: Georges (Kelsey Grammer), a nightclub manager, and Albin (Douglas Hodge), the club’s star drag queen. Someday when I return to La Cage – either to this production or another – I know there will be endless complexities to dissect and probe. I can’t wait.

But for now, let me bask in a less-critical enthusiasm for a memorable night of entertainment. Such experiences are few and far between.