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Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

Bad Reviews

I often wonder how it is that someone with a glaringly obvious lack of writing talent acquires a position as . . . a writer. For some reason, this bad hiring practice (and painful assault on good English) seems to be perpetrated most prevalently in the area of theatre reviewing. Perhaps this is the department where favors tend to be granted to no-talent cousins, mistresses, and amateurs. Or perhaps it's an unpaid volunteer position. Or perhaps, as is so often the case these days (what with the prevalence of online content), the so-called reviewer is self-appointed, having created his own forum for sharing his self-assessed and completely unconfirmed "expertise." Regardless, it is inexcusable to accept a position (even a self-appointed one) as a journalist when one cannot assemble a sensible collection of words that are capable of communicating intelligent observations. I offer the following recent theatre review, presented in its entirety (names and places have been changed), as but one example.

Throughout, I've offered my own review of the review.


HAIRSPRAY at the Harriet Smith Albany Theater – Review of the performance at the Harriet Smith Albany Theater in Albany, NY.

[My goodness. What a revelation, and we're only at the title. So you're saying that Hairspray, which is at the Harriet Smith Albany Theatre, is performed at the Harriet Smith Albany Theatre? And that's where again? Ah, I see. In Albany. And is it also performed in a theatre?]

The Harriet Smith Albany Theater is impressive! I had never been there before [This is not a comfort. It's your first visit? And you're a reviewer? (The theatre whose name I changed for this piece is one of the major ones in the area.)], but you can tell a great deal of planning and thought went into the theater! [Can you indeed? Enlighten us, pray do.] Upon arriving I found the lobby filled literally wall-to-wall with spectators. [Literally? My word. If this crackerjack reporting is true, this theatre is in urgent need of more space. That doesn't sound like good planning to me.] I was not quite sure if I was there for a fashion show or a musical, but either was fine by me! [I begin to get the sense that a tractor pull would also be fine by this writer. Or a dog show, a pie-eating contest, or a Sumo wrestling match. I imagine the experience of visiting a public place where there are other people must be a heady one. And yes, clearly he wasn't sure which of these events he was here to attend, as he’s currently reviewing the lobby, perhaps unaware that the show takes place in a different room.]

People were dressed trendy [1. It's trendily. 2.What does this have to do with the show? And 3. Now you're a fashionista? Please, please go inside and start reviewing. It can't be worse than this.] and there was quite a happening bar located near the entrance to the show, which undoubtedly made this a very cheery place to be. [As savvy theatergoers know, this is what tells you you're at a great theatre: a "happening" bar near the entrance, so you don't have too far to weave to your seat when it's time to go inside.] [Good God save us all.]

The stage was simple, the acoustics phenomenal and interest in the theater was abuzz when I arrived. [Let us pause here and reflect. Clearly, at this point in our story, the performance has yet to start, and already this astute observer has found the acoustics (not yet in use) to be "phenomenal." He has also found the stage to be "simple," though Lord only knows what that means. Regardless, with the curtain still down, to have any sort of opinion at all regarding the obscured stage suggests that our writer may be in possession of the rare gift of x-ray vision, in which case he could probably make a more impressive living at a circus than crafting poorly written theatre reviews. Finally, he tells us that "interest in the theatre was abuzz." It's an idiotic statement. What can be abuzz? A room can be abuzz. A city can be abuzz. Anything that can contain buzzing can be abuzz. Interest in the theatre cannot be abuzz. Also, all that buzzing must have made it difficult to assess the phenomenal preshow acoustics. But let us press on.] We were informed at the onset that this musical had a nine-piece orchestra as back- up! [As back-up? Are they there in case the prerecorded karaoke tracks fail?] Again, impressive! Now moving right along to my review of the musical HAIRSPRAY and it’s cast. [It's reassuring to know that it's cast. Otherwise, the simple stage would be empty. But by all means, continue. I can hardly wait to learn what you thought of the show.]

Truthfully, there was not one weak link in the bunch. [Oh, this promises to be incisive.] One was as talented as the next. The cast is strong and the clothing vibrant. [Well, you know the old saying: "A strong cast and vibrant clothing make the show." Also . . . "clothing"? Might we mean costumes? Or are we still talking about the audience's trendy attire?] The plot became more enticing to me as my assistant made me aware that it is akin to Dick Clark’s American Band Stand and in all actuality, that was the first REALITY SHOW on television. Interesting! [Fascinating! And since it seems you relish the acquisition of interesting facts, you may also enjoy the following fun tidbits:

—Simple research shows that American Bandstand (not "Band Stand"), in addition to not being the first reality show, was also not even the first live dance show. (Check out Let's Rhumba, or The Arthur Murray Party.)

—While the plot of Hairspray features a live television dance show, that fictional show is not modeled after American Bandstand, but rather, The Buddy Deane Show, a local Baltimore favorite from 1957 to 1964. Now, I didn't know that until a few moments ago. But I looked it up. See how that works?

—Here's another fun fact: your assistant is not a reliable source for vetting print-worthy information. Try Google.

—Also, did you know that you're not supposed to talk to your assistant during a performance? It's all covered in one of my Weekly Curmudgeons, The Eternal, Indisputable, Absolutely Non-Negotiable Rules of Theatre Attendance.]

The plot parallels the days when not only students, but everyone was struggling with racial barriers. [No, I promise you, not everyone.] If the youth of this era were left to their own devices, there probably would not have been too many racial barriers. [If my eyes roll any further up into my head, I'm going to need medical assistance.] This is a feel- good musical that addresses serious topics with ease and energy! [I was wrong. The review of the show is worse than the review of the lobby. I think we would have all been better off if the writer had spent the evening at the happening bar.]

I cannot say that any one person stood out here as they were all very talented entertainers. [Yes, so you've said.] Well I will say that Velma played by Gwen Randall was hysterical and her off- the -cuff one-liners were hilarious. ["Off-the-cuff" means improvised. I promise you, Ms. Randall's lines were pre-written and memorized. I'm sorry . . . you have seen theatre before, yes?] And there are quite a lot of them throughout the musical.

Overall, the cast was professional and I particularly applaud the acoustics, which are just right. [This man has an obsession with acoustics.] There is nothing worse than poor acoustics in my ever so humble opinion.

In its youth, I believe Hairspray had a great message to deliver and it won plenty of amazing awards [It won eight Tony Awards, nine Drama Desk Awards, and two Theatre World Awards. You do know these things can be researched, yes?] but it’s my opinion that the music used here was just a bit uninspiring! [Now, the music in Hairspray doesn't vary from production to production, so what you heard wasn't just "used" at this theatre in Albany. For every production, from the show's "youth" to the present day, the same music is "used." Please tell me you know that. Now, perhaps you don't care for the score . . . or the way it was played. But you see, there are fine English words that can clarify those exact sentiments so that other people will know what you're saying.]

Still I believe it is enjoyable for a family to see and worth the price if you have not seen a lot of other musicals and have nothing to compare it to. [My God, praise and damnation all at once. I fear this review may end without a clear expression of any sort of opinion . . . except regarding the awesome acoustics.] This is taking nothing away from the very strong, professional cast. [No, of course not. And what about all that "vibrant clothing"?] It’s just that the content of the musical itself is a bit trite and the music once again, could be a bit more uplifting . . . this coming from a person who loves music of all eras!


And there, rather abruptly, this illuminating piece ends.

It's hard to know what to say after that. Your Curmudgeon must confess to being a bit stumped. I've read an incalculable number of theater reviews in my time, from raves to pans, from gushy love letters to harsh rebukes, and I've never objected to any well-considered opinion, even when I disagreed with the reviewer, so long as the review was sensibly written. It seems so little to ask, particularly when the success or failure of a show may be influenced by what’s said in print. A smart review—even a negative one—supports the art form. But this one . . . well . . . I can't say I even fully understand what I've just read.

It's often said that a writer should write what he knows. It follows, then, that if a writer knows nothing about theatre, then that's what he ought to write: nothing about theatre.

And what if one is not particularly good at writing at all? What if one is eluded by the ability to assemble words in ways that meet the very lowest passable journalistic standards? In that case, the kindest gift one can give to writing is to not share one's written words with the public at all.

If you do . . . you're fair game for The Curmudgeon.

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