BY CARY GINELL
Recently, our good friend, actress and costumer-extraordinare Lori Lee Gordon made me aware of an editorial by Skip Maloney in his On Stage blog titled “We Should Review Community Theater Productions…Honestly.” (http://www.onstageblog.com.) It’s an excellent piece that gives us much to think about, so I thought I would offer my opinion here on what my intentions are in presenting reviews on VC On Stage.
I think that Maloney made some excellent points in his article but I disagree with the premise that we should hold community theater performers to the same critical standards that we do for professionals. In my reviews, I make allowances for the professional status of the performers. The higher you are up on the professional skill, the tougher I will be. Actor’s Equity performers can and should be able to take criticism, however, I don’t find that the gloves-off approach is necessarily appropriate for community or school theater productions. Speaking only for myself, VC On Stage encourages young performers to move on with their careers and we always try to find positive aspects of performances to focus on as opposed to finding fault with someone. I won’t give a rave to someone who forgets lines, sings off-key, or habitually makes errors in their performance. On the other hand, I prefer not to mention a bad performance at all rather than embarrass them by seeing how cleverly nasty I can get.
Generally speaking, I review from the top down. The most important aspect of a performance is the show itself. Is the show worthy of review? Some shows are just out-and-out lousy or inferior shows and can’t be saved no matter what the caliber of production. Others may have been hits, but I find them to be inferior of true shows of quality. The next step down is the director. Has the director done his/her job? Was there a problem with casting? Did the director try to inject his/her own “vision” into the show, and subsequently ruin it? This element is where I tend to focus most of the time and which causes most of the problems in a community or school production.
Performers in Ventura County generally do a good job – they know their lines, they sing well, and work hard to do what they do. Occasionally, a performance stands out far and above all the others in a show. This is where my own personal barometer comes into play – what I call my “spine-tingle” factor. The “spine-tinglers” are those who I award my annual “Vee-Cee” awards to, without ranking one against another. These are presented toward the end of December each year.
One thing I am very particular about is music. Being a musician myself and having played in pit orchestras on occasion, I know what goes into a good musical performance, and if a production uses “tracks” or brings in musicians who are not up to the task, I will point this out. This has raised some hackles in the past, especially with trumpet players who can’t handle high registers, or keyboardists who are so in love with their musicality that they overwhelm the rest of the performers.
But generally speaking, I am a booster of theater arts, not a “critic.” I am not out to embarrass anyone, but I am still committed to providing as honest an opinion of a show as I can, showcasing highlights and also mentioning places that could use improvement. To me, there is nothing worse than someone (and I think readers may know who I am talking about – there are several local culprits) who rave about every performer in every show, no matter the quality. This only serves to disparage the really good performers by putting outstanding performances on the same plane as those that are merely adequate. Thus, you will never see me give unmitigated raves all the time. I’m looking for that spine-tingling factor, where a performer elevates beyond what is expected of him or her to a level that is Broadway quality. You can be sure that when I give such a rave, it is meaningful and reflects my true feelings, not written just to boost performers who do their best, yet don’t show that something special that makes me run for my thesaurus to come up with synonyms for “terrific” that I haven’t used before.
I welcome any and all comments on my reviews and encourage a dialog between readers and myself – what I say is certainly not the “Gospel,” it is merely an opinion – an informed opinion, admittedly, but still, just my opinion. If you love “Mamma Mia!” and think it’s the best thing in the theater since Rodgers met Hammerstein, that’s your privilege. I endeavor to include my own personal viewpoint so that readers can use it as a guide to help shape their own opinions and decide whether or not to see a show. Generally speaking, Ventura County produces marvelous productions – many of which are certainly of Broadway quality. These not only include the professional companies, like Cabrillo Music Theatre and the Rubicon Theatre Company, but many performances on the lower levels, such as Conejo Players, the High Street Arts Center, and the Elite Theatre Company. Occasionally, the small, independent theaters will come up with something that will knock my socks off (see my review of Small Engine Repair) for example. For me, that’s the best thing about this job – when you get the unexpected from unexpected quarters.
So by all means, experiment. Don’t just stick with the tried-and-true. Go where you normally would not otherwise go. Good theater isn’t just at the Kavli. See a high school show – venture out into other parts of Ventura County beyond your normal comfort zone. You don’t have to go into L.A. to see professional, Broadway quality theater. More often than not, it’s right here in your own back yard. Check our Calendar to find a theater you don’t normally visit – and we’ll still be here to guide you along.
OK. Intermission’s over. Back to the shows!