Six years and six weeks ago - i.e. in May of 2008 - I returned to the world of local theatre reviews. I had written plenty in the early years of the Free Times (along with interviews, essays, previews of shows, plus reviews of movies, books, even museum exhibitions.) James Harley was starting a website for independent reviews, OnstageColumbia.com, as The State was scaling back its arts coverage, and he realized quickly that one person can't see everything, and so a number of folks pitched in to help. (Then Cindi Boiter started Jasper, and asked me to help, which led to even more reviews.) Since then I have seen a whopping 108 shows(!) This includes: - 31 of the last 38 shows at Workshop; 27 of the last 47 Main Stage shows at Trustus, 7 shows in the Trustus Side Door (plus a Late Night production, and a staged reading of a new play); 16 of the last 34 shows at Town; 8 of the last 19 shows at Columbia Children's Theatre (plus 2 YouTheatre productions, i.e. performed by children for children); 6 plays at USC, 2 at High Voltage, 2 at SC Shakespeare (including a one-act excerpt done at the Rosewood Arts Festival); one each at Theatre Rowe, On Stage Productions, and Stage 5; a semi-improv dinner theatre performance by the Capital City Killers, and a reading of a new play by the Chapin Theatre Company. That’s a LOT of theatre!
95 of those I reviewed. The majority of the reviews were written for Onstage Columbia, 68 in fact, and 20 of those were picked up by the Free Times. Two were online exclusives for the Free Times - interestingly, both were world premieres of High Voltage shows - 25 more were for this blog, i.e. What Jasper Said, and one of those was also rerun by the Free Times. Somehow I managed to see 30 shows last year (including the 2 readings and the one-act) and 17 so far this year. A conservative estimate is that there were 350 or more shows done locally in that period, i.e. close to 60 done each year, not even counting children's shows, recitals, drama ministries at churches, marionette shows, burlesque, circus and cabaret performances, etc. So as above, no one can see everything, least of all me. What follows then is some off-the-top-of-my-head reflections on what I have seen, and what I enjoyed. (Disclaimer: the following is solely a personal opinion, and not representative of the views of this site, nor this publication, nor anyone involved with it, nor is it meant to represent anything definitive. And this only refers to shows I did see, not those I didn't. So if I missed your nephew or niece's appearance as the third daffodil from the left, I'm sure it was dazzling nevertheless. )
Some interesting stats: a dozen plays that I saw were new works, most written by local authors, including Chris Cook’s new adaptations of Dracula and Night of the Living Dead, Columbia Children’s Theatre’s original commedia productions of classics like Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel, and assorted winners of the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival. More than half of the shows I saw in this period had roles for actors of color, and many of those shows in fact benefited from color-blind casting. And about time, I might add.
What did I like? Well, believe it or not, I've seen very few if any bad shows. Columbia has evolved over the decades to where there are literally several hundred talented performers here in town, although some don't do shows that frequently anymore. More often than not, I see actors' performances surpass mediocre or at best adequate material. I think this stems from a combination of odd programming choices, dated shows that don't always stand the test of time, and the relative weakness of much of contemporary Broadway. There have only been maybe 7 shows that I haven't enjoyed that much, and 3 were really old shows (an average of 50+ years old) that were showing their age, 2 were rarely-produced works that came out of regional theatre (i.e. never made it to Broadway, and in retrospect there may have been a reason) and 2 were original plays that might benefit from some re-writing (to my knowledge neither has ever been done since.) But even those had their moments, primarily due to some great folks in their casts. I'm not saying everything was a classic, or great literature - but seeing an age-appropriate cast do an energetic production of, say, Disney’s Camp Rock, or elementary-school age kids do an adorable 25-minute production of the Charlie Brown Easter Beagle show, can still be fun if you accept them for what they are.
Yet there were easily 20-30 more that I would feel no need to see again unless there was some particular performer I really wanted to see. A lot of those weren't really plays - they were musical revues, even if they had dialogue and an ostensible plot. These too can be enjoyable to listen to, since there are so many gifted singers around. Still, often I'd be just as happy if they tossed the framing devices and just let the performers just do a cabaret show.
But seriously, what did I enjoy most? Hands down, Victor/Victoria at Workshop in March of 2011. Perfect casting, and lightning-fast timing and choreography made this a great experience for me. Close behind that would be The Producers, also at Workshop, and Avenue Q and [title of show], both at Trustus. Interestingly, some combination of Kevin Bush, Laurel Posey, and Matthew DeGuire were in each of those productions.
Then again, it's hardly surprising to anyone who knows me that my favorites were shows from Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini, and Mel Brooks, a show about muppets, and a show about making a show, since those would have been my favorites at age 10 or 15 too. It's hard to escape one's own preferences. Broad comedy, done rapid-fire, with lots of double entendre, has always appealed to me. Case in point: I admired the professional quality of shows like Next to Normal at Trustus (I feel sure that I saw a production exactly like I'd have seen in NYC) and Miss Saigon (I suspect Town's elaborate production would rival that of a touring company - maybe not the original one in the 80's, but certainly one that might play the Koger or Township now.) But I didn't rush out to buy the script or the original cast album. I appreciated the artistry and professionalism, even though it may not have been my cup of tea. And I don’t even consider myself that much of a musical lover – but sometimes the spectacle on stage and memorable songs that set your toes a-tappin’ make for a great experience.
Actually, what I normally enjoy most is quirky, character-centric shows with something to say (which would be an apt description of [title of show] too), and the very best of those that I have seen in years and years was The Shape of Things, directed by Bakari Lebby - at age 22!! - in two separate and equally excellent productions, first at USC and then at Workshop with a different cast. Close behind would be the NiA Company’s production of Fat Pig, and A Behanding in Spokane, both done in the Trustus Side Door space, and the Trustus Main Stage production of The Little Dog Laughed. All were done on a virtually bare stage with a cast of four actors, which is all you need as long as you have good people. While I'm at it, I do want to mention the very magical and moving production of Caroline, or Change, at Workshop, quite inspirational in its own way. Honorable mention goes to Dracula at High Voltage and Second Samuel at On Stage Productions for doing an incredible job with very limited resources (i.e. sets, space, and budget.)
Here's another interesting stat: I have seen Vicky Saye Henderson and Frank Thompson more than any other performer locally in that period: 12 times each (although that's just a fraction of the shows each has done - remarkable, since all of Frank's that I saw were in a period of only three and a half years, as were all but two of Vicky’s.) Charlie Goodrich is close behind with 11, Will Moreau with 10, Bobby Bloom and Giulia Marie Dalbec with 9, followed by Kyle Collins, Elisabeth Baker, Chad Forrister, George Dinsmore, Patrick Dodds, Elizabeth Stepp and Hunter Bolton, all tied at 8. But again, I stress that these were just the ones that I saw them in.
USC's Theatre South Carolina and the SC Shakespeare Company both have missions to produce the great works of the stage and thank goodness, because apart from shows there, I have seen only a couple of genuine classics, i.e. things that are taught in English classes. More and more local theatres have to be conscious of box office, which isn't always a good thing, especially if a show chosen for its potential to sell tickets doesn't live up to financial expectations. So the alternative is to do name-brand shows, straight from NYC, and while I've enjoyed the chance to see these, I just wonder how many will hold up over the next few decades? Romeo and Juliet, for example, is going strong after 400 years, and recent productions of works by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee still worked just fine. But to me something like Miss Saigon now seems less ground-breaking and more of a traditional doomed love story. We've unquestionably seen top-notch local productions of some of the biggest-name and biggest-reputation shows from the last few decades, including lots of big award-winners. But I keep finding myself writing variations on "well that was fun, but how on earth did it win so many awards?" And I think back to Pulitzer winners of yore, like Of Thee I Sing, Men in White, Beyond the Horizon, Fiorello, and Seascape. Wait, what are those shows? Exactly.
As above, a lot of productions contended with their age, with varying levels of success. If you've never seen it, it's new to you, as NBC used to remind us during rerun season, and if a theatre knows their audience will support a show that some might think has been done to death, there's no shame in bringing it back, as long as it's done well. But I have to stress - there were a LOT of fairly recent and disposable pop hits like High School Musical, Drowsy Chaperone, and Shrek which were nevertheless quite entertaining, and which gave plenty of good people good roles in which to shine.
Most promising trend I've seen over the last six years: talented child and teen performers maturing into adult leading roles. Also performers migrating from theatre to theatre; everyone benefits when the best actors land the roles they are best suited for. It's very gratifying to see people from one cast attending a performance of a show at a nearby theatre on their only night off in order to support their friends. Another terrific trend: actors normally seen in lead roles being willing to appear in ensembles; again, everyone benefits, and as anyone who's done live theatre knows, it's not the size of the role... it's how fun your castmates are over 6-8-10 weeks of rehearsals, performances and cast parties.
Most disturbing trend I've seen: audiences over-inflating their experience. I've occasionally been accused of "liking everything," but read what I write more closely - I usually say that something is good if that's what you're looking for. And explain who might enjoy a particular show - fans of country music, fans of slapstick, senior citizens, families with children under age 7, drunk people. What I see far too often, however, is audience members saying that every show they see is ground-breaking, trend-setting, transcendent, transformative or life-changing. More likely, the best show you've ever seen in Columbia is about as good as a hundred other good shows that have been done here over the years. You may just need to get out more, see more live theatre, and read more plays. I think we also may tend to confuse hitting a high note in a solo with something unique, when hundreds and hundreds of singers in church choirs do it every Sunday morning.
So there are some thoughts after the most recent six years of reviews. Have I learned anything? Yes. A) there are a ton of talented people in the Midlands, and B) there are thousands of potential audience members who will come see the right show if they are in the mood for it, and will come back for more if it lives up to their expectations. Yet how much influence does a critic's review have on box office? Or is the critic's role to interpret and help find meaning in a particular work? Does one even need a critic's review, and does some random writer's opinion even matter? All valid questions.... all of which will have to be addressed in some future blog post. In the meantime, those were some of the shows I enjoyed - what about you? What did you like? The comments section below awaits your input!
~ August Krickel