Sunday July 8, 2012

LENOX

What's the role of aperforming-arts critic writing in The Berkshire Eagle or other reputable print or online media?

That question has been the subject of lively debate this summer, as it has been every season when our theater and concert stages light up with a cornucopia of productions vying for audience patronage during the "high season" from June to September.

"Fiddler on the Roof," currently in a one-month run at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, was reviewed by The Eagle's veteran theater critic and entertainment editor, Jeffrey Borak, after opening night. He complimented many aspects of the production, but found fault with Brad Oscar's portrayal of Tevye, the central character.

Terry Teachout, well-known critic for The Wall Street Journal, praised the production overall, but also criticized Oscar's performance. Teachout argued that the actor lacked a "depth of feeling. ... That matters -- a lot -- because Tevye's boisterous humor is tinged at all times with pathos, a quality missing from Mr. Oscar's brassy, crowd-pleasing performance. Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, was a crowd-pleaser, too, but he also knew how to jerk a tear."

"Fiddler" is among a couple of dozen vintage musicals that are virtually critic-proof -- audiences will flock to them, irrespective of any reviewer's personal reaction, because they are indisputable masterpieces.


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So it's questionable whetherthe critiques by Borak and Teachout deterred any theatergoers from purchasing tickets to the Barrington Stage production, which I'm eager to see.

In fact, the power of critics to affect the box office is overrated. Word-of-mouth has always been a primary driver of ticket sales, all the more so now with the emergence of social media and video-recorded reactions by patrons that Barrington Stage and other theaters promote on their websites.

Even in the pre-Internet age, the supposedly all-powerful New York Times critic Frank Rich -- nicknamed "the butcher of Broadway" for his hard-hitting reviews -- was unable to prevent crowds from flocking to massive spectacles such as "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables."

Those shows ran for decades.

Rich, now a political writer for New York magazine, didn't care for that type of super-sized musical but was an enthusiastic supporter of Stephen Sondheim, the brilliant composer and lyricist whose complex, challenging, intimate shows at first failed to connect big-time with audiences despite Rich's oft-restated advocacy.

Sondheim has since come into his own as later generations of theatergoers have come to fully appreciate his innovations.

The outpouring of letters from Eagle readers taking issue -- often harshly -- seems unprecedented and perhaps less than spontaneous.

One writer claimed that "theater critics have a predetermined life span, much as a match you strike, watch it flare and then gradually fade to ash. After critiquing hundreds of different performances, I believe they become somewhat jaded and convinced of their own infallibility of judgment, which may have no correlation with the public's. With the recent reviews of ‘Fiddler,' I believe Borak has turned into an ash!"

Another letter writer, taking the opposite tack, complained that The Eagle's critic had "sent him" to a favorably reviewed production that turned out, in the writer's view, to be a bomb.

Fortunately, critics have skins thicker than a crocodile and are undeterred by such hyperbolic missives.

The role of a well-qualified, professional critic is to offer a personal opinion based on extensive training, education and experience in his or her field. Readers are free to ignore the critique or take it to heart.

I have disagreed with theater and music reviews I've seen in The Eagle and elsewhere, and that's fine -- the reviews are always enlightening and worth pondering. I have never abandoned plans to see a production based on a critic's negative assessment. Sometimes, after the show, I wished that I had.

Given that theater and concert tickets are costly, a published review can be a useful ingredient in consumers' decisions about what's worth seeing and what isn't. 

The role of a critic isn't to be a cheerleader for a specific theater or for downtown Pittsfield. Those who play that role fail the credibility test.

The bottom line is that any of us can choose to consider a trusted critic's point of view -- or not.

Dissenting viewpoints are always welcome for give-and-take discussions.

Clarence Fanto is an Eagle staffer and occasional reviewer of music performances. He can be contacted at cfanto@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.