Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE.
In the midst of an actual European war, it is difficult to summon much energy to care about manufactured, narcissistically attention-seeking squirmishes in the spheres of twitter and reviewing. Indeed it could be argued that to give it any kind of attention at all is to do exactly what its protagonists are seeking to do: to insert themselves into the cultural conversation at any opportunity and at any cost.
The battleground is, of course, around expressions of unabashed enthusiasm — which certainly have their place — and those of considered and knowledgeable critical opinion.
It’s far easier to tweet, to start with, than to write a considered review; and it’s even easier to respond to a considered opinion than have to form one yourself.
When a leading and long-established London theatre critic slated a new production of the Gipsy Kings scored musical revival of ZORRO on Wednesday that opened the night before at Charing Cross Theatre, a noisy blogger forcefully replied:
A reply to this comment, however, casts it an alternative and perhaps more accurate light:
As another commentator put it, the expected playbook now increasingly looks like this:
Nick Curtis himself has noticed that he’s been the subject of this little fight for territory, tweeting this (and getting a reply from fellow critic Sam Marlowe that also makes an interesting point).
“Real” criticism is about embracing different opinions: that it is possible (and even desirable) for there to be more than one view about a show. (I’ve long said that there’s no such thing as right or wrong in criticism; it’s always a matter of opinion, but some opinions are more trustworthy than others).
And that’s one of the things I like about reading a range of different critics. I often learn more from a critic whose opinion differs from mine than one who does. Or sometimes from the dissenting review of the pack, as shown by that of Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune of the Broadway transfer of Noah Haide’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES which opened on Sunday, starring Debra Messing.
The show was all but dismissed by most of the New York critics who reviewed its Broadway premiere at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, but Jones wrote a loving and lovely review in fulsome praise of it.
As he put it,
“In his play THREE TALL WOMEN, the great playwright Edward Albee identified what he called the ‘360-degree view.’ It happens, he said, in your 40s or 50s, when you’re old enough to understand the folly of youth and still young enough to see and feel the agonizing decline of the generation ahead. For this and other reasons, older writers come with a built-in advantage when it comes to new plays; if only Broadway, always obsessed with the young, better understood what it is missing. The wonderful new drama BIRTHDAY CANDLES… is a perfect example. For 90 minutes at the Roundabout Theatre on Broadway, face masks double as a means by which an emotionally wrought audience can wipe its eyes. No young person could have written this play; the pain and discoveries of the author are all over every beautifully written line.”
He concludes by dubbing it “a truly must-see show that is fully successful when it comes to everything that really matters. Messing didn’t pick some revival or obvious showcase for her comedic chops: she strives mightily and beautifully to find her way through a wise and sad drama, just like the character she plays.”
It’s a review that wears its heart on its sleeve, just like the undeniably sentimental play itself does. I saw it early in previews when I was in New York last month; and reading this review, the show suddenly glowed in my memory afresh. That’s exactly what good criticism does: it enhances and reminds you of your own experience, and even deepens it, too.
I also enjoy reviews that do the job of seeing a show for you so that you don’t necessarily need to. An absolute model of this kind of review is Adam Feldman’s one-star blast of disapproval for THE LITTLE PRINCE in Time Out New York.
As he writes,
“Pity the poor Little Prince. Having left his tiny asteroid planet to explore the galaxy, the wide-eyed wanderer has landed with a very loud splat on the stage of the Broadway Theatre. On the night I saw the show, the crowd was not pleased. ‘What the hell was that?’ said a friendly-faced lady to her husband and children as the four of them stood outside giggling during intermission at The Little Prince, having decided not to return for the second half. ‘Are you guys leaving, too? asked a nearby woman. ‘Oh good! Now I know I’m not crazy!’ (She wasn’t crazy.) As another couple put it as they crossed the street as fast as they could, ‘We could’ve stayed home and watched Tammy Faye Bakker!’ In these troubled times, it is heartening to see so many people agree about at least one thing: The Little Prince is quite confoundingly bad.”
And yet, and yet: in the Daily Beast, senior editor Tim Teeman (and formerly arts editor of THE TIMES in London) records an almost entirely different experience:
“Many Broadway shows come with brash boldfaces. Daniel Craig in Macbeth. Got it. Debra Messing aging until she’s 107. Oooook! Billy Crystal as Mr. Saturday Night. Ta-dah! But in the roster of April’s relentless battery of star-drenched Tony season openings, The Little Prince has elicited shrugs and puzzlement, for here are no celebrities and no firecracker drama; rather an adaptation of the classic children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, first published in 1943, using acrobatics, lighting, and dance. Children seemed rapt watching it in front of this critic, and so were adults. This production began life in Paris three years ago, and has journeyed to Dubai and Sydney since. In a landscape of theatrical bombast, it is a bewitching, unexpected curio… Even after an uneven opening half (which drags and is fairly dull), and even if you are not quite sure what is going on after that, it doesn’t matter.THE LITTLE PRINCE is a meditative experience, a bath of colors and sounds, directed and choreographed by Anne Tournié. The show’s shifting tableaux are best experienced as a kind of fairground for the senses, no illicit substances required. It is unusual to see something on a Broadway stage that is a visual treat, without overdoing the visuals—that conveys wonder but subtly. It feels experimental, unpolished, and ambitious, all in good ways, even if the action feels a little too receded and lost on the massive stage.”
So maybe, just maybe, I’ll need to see it after all when I’m back in New York next month from May 6-16 (I’ve decided to forgo the trip I’d planned for later THIS month, given that I really need to recover from the major spinal surgery that I’ve just had this week; I happily returned home to West Sussex yesterday afternoon).
And when I do, I’ll be guided by the reviews that will have already been written. I’ll be able to spare myself some pain in the process, even if the journey of discovering shows for myself will inevitably be lost.
Still, I’m looking forward to seeing the new Jason Robert Brown scored musical version of MR SATURDAY NIGHT, the Broadway transfer for A STRANGE LOOP (a new musical that was premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2019), and the transfer for the Menier’s FUNNY GIRL, as well as an Off-Broadway musical entry ¡AMERICANO!, plus a couple of plays, Tracy Letts’s THE MINUTES and Daniel Craig in MACBETH.
And, having been out of proper circulation for a while, I’ve got an expanding list of shows to catch up on back here in London. Right now, that list includes ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at Southwark Playhouse and MIke Bartlett’s THE 47TH at the Old Vic, plus Bartlett’s SCANDALTOWN that opened at the Lyric Hammersmith last night.
The round of imminent and future openings both in London and on Broadway is in my regularly updated feature here: https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-april-11-onwards/
SEE YOU ON TUESDAY
Given that this is a bank holiday weekend, I will not be here on Monday, but will return on Tuesday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/.