A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a reader concerned about the impact of my review of “Nate Jacobs’ 50s Jukebox Revue” at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
I had generally enjoyed the musical portions, staged as mini concerts, but questioned the effectiveness of the brief dialogue scenes that divided the production and didn’t do much to create characters or a story about performers touring on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit in the 1950s.
The reader apparently heard some theatergoers muttering in the lobby that they may be wasting their time, based on what they perceived in my mostly positive review. Maybe they were reacting to a headline that read: “ ‘Jukebox’ has lively spirit but it lacks depth.”
When I’m writing my reviews, I can’t think of the potential impact on the shows, theaters or performers. It would paralyze me as a writer because I don’t look forward to saying critical things (well, sometimes it can be fun). I’d much rather write a glowing report.
My job as a theater critic is not to be a cheerleader. I want all shows to succeed — after all, I have to sit through them — but I know that’s not possible.
Rather, I am supposed to honestly assess what works and what doesn’t and suggest ways that the production might be improved. That’s especially important for original shows, like this revue that Westcoast founder Nate Jacobs created around hits of the 1950s.
What value is there if the opinions aren’t honest? I admit there are times when I try hard to be kind with the criticism because harshness isn’t always deserved or warranted. I want readers to enjoy my work, think about it and maybe be inspired to see a show.
Over the years, I’ve heard of people who canceled tickets because of a negative review. My feeling is if you were interested enough to buy the tickets, why not experience it for yourself? You might actually like it.
That’s because my reviews are my opinion, which is no more right than yours. I just get paid to express it and provide a sense of perspective.
I’m happy that most theaters in our area have subscription series, meaning a show usually won’t close early because of slow ticket sales. Some shows really aren’t worth the time or money, but they have been few over the years.
Critics and audiences have been kind to Westcoast, and with good reason. But that doesn’t mean Jacobs and his company are perfect. Who is?
I appreciated Jacobs’ efforts to try to tell a story in the “Jukebox Revue.” I just found the effort lacking, as if it was tacked on to give it more substance than was actually there. But there may be something worth developing in the hint of a story of performers trying to make it big during segregation. There are so many dramatic (and musical) possibilities in that scenario.
It takes a lot of time and planning, testing, rewriting and editing to create strong shows, and that work wasn’t evident in this show. Despite their abundant talent, the performers were unable to breathe emotions into storylines and characters that barely existed.
Fortunately, the cast can sing and dance, and when they’re doing that, the audience all but forgets the attempt at a story.
Keep in mind, it’s one show out of many for the troupe. We’ll just have to wait to see what surprises are in store as the season continues.
Happy Holidays: This is my last Behind the Scenes column for 2012 as I take some time off to prepare for the hectic schedule of openings in January. I wish all of you a happy new year.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.