The Perils of Reviewing Theater

Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. That story of long-lost love being rediscovered is entirely too easy to swoon over, not to mention the supporting cast of characters is a hoot. So when I saw that my September review options for Centerstage included a musical adaptation of the book, I jumped on it. As Beth said, you can’t miss “Persuasion: The Musical!”

But oh how we should’ve missed it.

Beth drove three hours to visit me and see the play, and she said it was the worst play she’s ever seen. I felt so bad, although of course I couldn’t have known. It turned out to be a really expensively funded community theater production, with several shaky singing performances and one spectacularly bad acting and singing performance. Here’s an excerpt of the review:

Ms. Landis wrote the libretto for this adaptation, and even traveled to England to do research for it, so it is clear that this is a labor of love. Unfortunately, that love didn’t translate into a stronger performance, and enthusiasm alone can’t carry a play. This story deserves a passionate production, not a three and a half hour slog.

Three and a half hourrrrrrrrs. Nothing is that long. Maybe the Ring cycle. No one even does Shakespeare at that length anymore. Three and a half hours I will never get back.

The woman playing Anne, Barbara Landis, is the Artistic Director of the company, so she pretty clearly cast herself, but what she needed was someone to tell her no, you can write the libretto, you can pick the music, but you cannot play this part. We wondered if maybe she had an illness, because her movements and facial expressions were so odd that it seemed possible she didn’t have proper control over them. This would be terrible! To be slamming the performance of a woman who bravely overcame an illness or stroke. Except that there is no mention of that in the program, there is no indication that she is anything but well, so I have to go with the information I’m given. Based on that, it was a supremely narcissistic move to cast herself in a role she couldn’t possibly carry, and that is unfair to her cast, her crew, and her audience.

But also, she has all these accolades from past performances! (I Googled her.) She was in so many prestigious performances, as were many of her cast (several of whom were not at all up to the opera singing required). Who is casting these people? What are they seeing that I’m missing? Am I making a huge mistake in giving this a strongly negative review?

I’ve never run into this problem before. I’ve seen a couple shows that I wrote more negative than positive reviews for, but none that made me want to leave at intermission (I even texted my editor to see if I could do that, but let’s face it, that’s pretty unethical if you’re reviewing a show, to only see half of it). I was torn up about whether I should really lay into this play for being as bad as it was, and this actor in particular, or whether I should give some leeway. As you can see in the review, I devoted a whole third of my allotted words to pointing out the positives. But in the end, that’s all I could afford, because I ultimately saw it as more important to be honest, even brutally so, than to guess at motives and try and be nice. And maybe I’m out of step with the other reviewers in town, but I suppose that’s why we have so many: a reviewer for every taste.

Read the rest of the review here.

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7 thoughts on “The Perils of Reviewing Theater

  1. Persuasion was the first novel I had to read in high school. It was my first Jane Austen, and also my English teacher’s favorite book. Given how much I liked Pride and Prejudice when I read it, I think I might like Persuasion if I read it now, but at the time I hated it. (Perhaps this was because, due to my teacher’s love for it, we spent nine weeks reading this 200 page novel?)
    Anyway, years later, having gotten past my loathing of the novel, I went to see the premier of a PBS adaptation of Persuasion — which was indescribably bad. Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy) played Anne’s father. I also recall lots of slo-mo shots and an inappropriately intense musical score. Maybe it’s just not meant to be taken off the page.

  2. Oh I didn’t hate that PBS version, but it wasn’t anything special, for sure. The 1995 movie, with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, is actually quite good. Root’s face is perfect at expressing Anne’s inner turmoil. That may be the problem with trying to stage it, actually; the story depends so much on Anne’s inner life, and being on stage necessarily requires some exaggeration. Film is better at allowing that quiet reflection, simply because it can zoom in closer and dwell for awhile.

    But yeah, it’s not the most adaptation-friendly story. Many aren’t.

  3. As your co-sufferer in this play I can affirm that it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I’m amazed that adults actually permitted this to happen. I spent the whole time jerking and reeling as note after disastrous note was squawked off-key and out of synch with the music. I must say, however, that I got more than the usual amount of enjoyment from making fun of it afterward. If it was going to be bad, at least it was spectacularly so instead of just being boring.
    I also spent a lot of time wondering about whether it could have worked if done competently. My conclusion is that this particular iteration of the play was not salvageable. The whole conception that the play was a story told to small children represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the book to me. But I think that as a musical or as an opera, there is actually quite a large scope to investigate the inner life. Often songs are sung outside of the action of the plot as a way for the characters to express what they are thinking/feeling. This could be a perfect way to show Anne’s maturation.

    • OK, wow. The newly-revealed fact that this was set up as “a story told to small children” makes this infinitely worse. Because a seven-year-old will really care about the inner turmoil of a woman on the verge of old maid-hood. Yeesh.

      • No kidding! The first scene was literally 2 kids rushing in and demanding a story from their Aunt Jane. We should have run right then!

    • That’s true, opera solos are all about showing the inner life, so it’s possible it could’ve worked.

      The play was just hitting all the beats of the plot, with no imagination of staging or phrasing or anything. Which means that even with a different lead, it wouldn’t have been a great thing, but maybe just a mildly amusing way to pass the evening.

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