Reviews, who are they good for? (Including Review: A Chorus Line)

by Jane

On Friday December 31st, A Chorus Line had its first preview at the Adelaide Festival Centre.  Before the curtain even fell, Adelaide Now (the online branch of The Advertiser) had published an article about the first performance entitled A Chorus Line Dazzles At Premiere.  It’s your typical arts fluff-piece – “stars were made”, producer tells you you should go, Adelaide’s the place to be, etc.  Critics weren’t invited until the official opening night of Jan 3, yet journalist Emily Watkins – the Sunday Mail’s Crime and Justice Reporter – still tells us the production “dazzled the opening night crowd.”  Can’t you just see that on the posters?

On Jan 1st, the Adelaide Festival Centre’s twitter asked tweeters what they thought of “opening night”:

before getting well and truly in the act, tweeting Watkins article as their “first review”, to which I replied:

To which I got no response.

So not only do we have the local newspaper conflating a first performance with an opening night, we have the Adelaide Festival Centre also ignoring this distinction, and then calling an article a review.

I mainly thought no more of it, until down to the Festival Theatre I went on January 3rd to pick up my tickets and watch the show to write my review.  And it wasn’t until I sat down in my seat that I fully comprehended that critics had been invited to see and respond to a production which is a replica of a production which first played Broadway in 1975, where it continued for fifteen years. Which first played the West End in 1976; Sydney in 1977.  Which won nine Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, became the longest running show on Broadway, and played to 6.5 million people on that stage alone. These are all facts which could leave someone in awe, but I was left with just one thought:

What am I doing here?  What are any of us critics doing here?

What will any of us have to say about a production which has been kicking around the globe for 37 years?  What is that going to offer to theatrical discussion?

And when I came out of the performance, all I wanted to say about the show was “A Chorus Line is A Chorus Line”.  Because that’s it: that’s your review.  If you know the show, you’re going to get what you expect.  If you don’t, Wikipedia is going to tell you more than me. Better yet, read Clive Barnes’ review of the original Public Theatre production in 1975’s New York Times – that will do more for your understanding of the production than any of us in Adelaide are going to be able to do.

Sure, there is a certain cultural barometer writers from Adelaide can apply – does it work here, does it work now?  And yes, there are comments to be made on the execution of the replication.  But then again, is anyone going to listen?  This is A Chorus Line, we’re talking about.  Hardly an unknown entity.

The more I wrote my review, the more uncomfortable I became.  Never before have I felt so much like an extension of a publicity department: given tickets to put bums on seats.  “Dazzled the opening night crowd!”

So then, what’s in a review?  I think a review can be many things, but I’m interested in it as a craft when it lends itself to a discussion of art in reference to a time and place; I’m intrigued by the singular powers it has as a recorded chronicle of a transient art form, capturing context and relevant history in a way recordings, publicity, and other arts journalism will never be able to match; I love what it does in Australia with our small population and tiny theatrical community in a country that is large and often untraversable by shortening the distance between cities through sharing stories of stories.

And yes, there is always that self-centred, self-important part of you that feels your words can make a difference: showing the creative where their work didn’t quite translate to the audience; showing the audience a piece of the puzzle they missed.  On the flip side of that, there is the fear and the heartache of whom you could hurt when you write a negative review; or who of these people will come back to hurt you.

But what I don’t want to be as a critic is a ticket-seller.  I’m not your publicist.  I’m not your marketing department.  Being quoted from or linked to by a company is a perk, but I don’t write reviews for pull-quotes to be found.  If I can influence people to buy a ticket to your show with my words, that is wonderful, that’s an even bigger perk.  But my task is always to first find the words; I’m not in control of their flow on effect.

Writing about A Chorus Line, it felt like the only thing I had been asked to do was to sell tickets.  “Here, respond to this work which has been playing as is for fourteen more years than you’ve been alive.  Let a few more people recognise the name in a headline; the name is what will sell us tickets.”  There was nothing new to talk about, it’s all been said before.  There was no connection to be made between a creative team and 2012 and Adelaide, not least of all because half of the creative team has passed away in the intervening 37 years since they created the work half-a-world-away.

Especially when you consider some companies based here only quote interstate and international reviews on their website – regardless of if they were for a completely different production – what is the place of the Adelaide-based critic today?  Do we receive tickets only in the everlasting hope of a good review, of an excited reader who might stumble across it of their own accord or through a quickly lost link on social media, of a few more tickets sold?  Are we part of the marketing strategy?  Are we to blame, then, when it all goes wrong?

Because I want to be more that that.  I want to be part of the conversation: I don’t want to be on the sidelines of it, I don’t want to be the end of it.  I want to let people in Sydney and Melbourne and Lisbon and Boston know what we are creating in Adelaide; I want to tell Adelaide about work which this city hasn’t seen before.  I want you to be able to go back through my work in one year or five years or twenty years and get a view of our city and our artists, and I want there to be other critics here with whom you can do the same.

But if all I am is another publicist, I’m not sure that I want to do this at all.

Update: A follow-up post.

This review originally appeared on www.australianstage.com.au

A Chorus Line is a Broadway classic. With the original production opening in 1975 and running until 1990, at its closing A Chorus Line was the longest running production on Broadway. Winning nine Tony Awards, it was only the fifth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Thirty-seven years after the original production, little has changed, with the new Australian tour a reproduction of the work of original director/choreographer Michael Bennett by original cast member Baayork Lee. Here, we are given an assertive and confident production of a piece which fills an essential place in the musical theatre canon. A Chorus Line is the production you would expect to see.

On a bare stage we watch as hopefuls audition for a place in the chorus line of a Broadway musical. In addition to knowing his cast can dance and sing, director Zach (Joshua Horner) also wants to know a little bit about the people behind the performers. We meet seventeen performers, and from them four boys and four girls will be selected for Broadway.

For his portrayal of director Zach, constantly telling those auditioning to stop performing, Horner never does. While he isn’t helped by the construct that sees his voice literally booming over the theatre, on stage and off Horner’s Zach is mannered, affected, and theatrical, with Horner never settling down into his part.

The auditioning company subsequently fare better. A Chorus Line ultimately has a bittersweet ending: the individuals who are selected have reached their goal, however their goal is to form a part of a homogenous line. ‘One Singular Sensation’: not a note, kick, head or hair out of place.

With a few notable exceptions, however it is unfortunate the cast of this production largely reaches its greatest heights as an ensemble. As individuals the players have their strengths but also their weaknesses; when they work as a group the power of the shared music and choreography elevates the performers and the production.

The night, however, is stolen by Euan Doidge as Paul, in a monologue on his acceptance of himself, and his parents’ acceptance of the man he would choose to be. In a subtle performance, Doidge nonetheless managed to hold the house in silence, his years of hidden ache spilling out into the theatre.

The text of the show (book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante) was built on conversations with actors working in New York City, and many of the actors who shared their stories went on to perform in the original 1975 production. Unusually for a musical, is in these book scenes where there is the greatest opportunity to connect to the characters, as you feel these are the closest to the true stories.

Time has dated the music very little. Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy composition flies well under Musical Director Paul White and the Adelaide Art Orchestra, and Edward Kleban’s lyrics are carried well by the cast, although some have stronger voices than others. Bennett’s recreated choreography is one of the best keys we have to the company as individuals, as he uses both their individual movement, grasp and interpretation within the 1930s-styled “traditional” movement, and the “modern” choreographed solos and group numbers to give us a foundation to the characters and the plot.

On opening night, the production’s biggest downfall was in the execution of the sound design (Simon Gregory). Individual microphones were not always turned on at the correct moment, and in large ensemble book scenes volumes were often pitched at different levels, an element which distracted from the text. During One, microphones were constantly knocked by the performers hats, the repeated scratching over the speaker system overriding music and voices.

In a production of this scale, amplification should preferably be unnoticeable and naturalistic (which this production is a long way off achieving), and at the very least it certainly shouldn’t detract from the play. Work is needed to ensure that when characters are speaking or singing they are always heard, that audiences are allowed to read the nuance in conversations through consistency in levels, and if the cast are to wear head mounted microphones their hats do not touch their heads.

Thirty-seven years on from its original production, A Chorus Line faithfully remains an eye into the Broadway ‘gypsies’ of the 1970s, people looking for another production to get them through. While it occasionally has moments of great heart, this production is largely a fun, light-hearted, and traditional night of musical theatre.

Adelaide Festival Centre in Association with Tim Lawson presents A Chorus Line.  At the Festival Theatre until January 28, then Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne from February 4.   More information and tickets.

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