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Review round-up: A Little Night Music at the Shaw Festival

I'm back in Toronto and ready to hit up the Fringe Festival once again. Any suggestions? What's the buzz?

I would have binged on Fringe this weekend, but was up at sunny Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival's latest round of openings. (There is a final set two weekends from now.) Today, the critics' verdicts came in for Morris Panych's production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, which is being staged in the festival's intimate Court House theatre. I gave it two and a half stars out of four:

The smallness of venue is a mixed blessing. Director Morris Panych has made maximum use of the minimal space, with designer Ken MacDonald's coat-hook-like trees on wheels neatly dividing and redividing his blue, green and white set....

On the other hand, the nearness of the actors brings the production's shortcomings into sharp focus. The show, you suspect, would look good from far, but up-close it is far from good. Well, far from great anyway.

Chief among the problems is a trio of male leads whose acting leaves much to be desired.
[Read on]

ON THE OTHER HAND: Over in the Toronto Star, Richard Ouzounian also gives the production 2.5/4 stars, but seems to have the opposite opinion from me on almost every aspect of the production, while the Toronto Sun's John Coulbourn gives it 4/5 stars even though he admits two of the male leads give "one dimensional and wooden performances".

Last but not least, John Law, from the Niagara Falls Review, whose reviews are picked up by the Canadian Press wire service, can only muster 2.5/5 stars: "It's based on an Ingmar Bergman film. It has music by Stephen Sondheim. There are Tony Awards in its closet. Why, then, does it feel so disposable?"

ON THE OTHER OTHER HAND: Thom Allison, who stars in A Little Night Music as Count Carl-Magnus, keeps an entertaining blog that gives you a behind-the-scenes peek at what it's like to be an actor. He put his own "review" of his own opening night yesterday, scooping all the critics: "There was a great flow, everyone was on their game. Beautiful performances. The audience was a listen-y audience so they weren't as vocal as some have been but they were clearly enjoying it. And at the end, they jumped to their feet which was lovely."

OK, so that may be a slightly slanted perspective... I did see a Shaw Festival audience jump to their feet this weekend - and I wanted to join them too - but you'll have to wait a couple of days for the review of that production to appear in the paper.

  1. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: Excuse me, dude, that was hardly a slanted perspective. They did jump to their feet; en masse; you may have been, yes, the last to join them, but I believe you were also standing. A slanted perspective I would think is when somebody blatantly fails to report an event that occurred, or downplays that event to make their point.

  2. MK Piatkowski from Toronto, Canada writes: Seen three shows, all winners. Barbeque King, Totem Figures, Take It Back.
  3. Kelly Nestruck from Toronto, Canada writes: Hi Morris - I don't usually report when a show receives a standing ovation, because it seems to have become fairly standard behaviour at the theatre, especially on opening nights when the audience is stacked with colleagues, friends and/or family... I've seen good and bad shows, enthusiastic and blasé audiences get/give standing ovations. I tend to join in whether I've liked something or loved something and will only stay seated if I loathed something. (Even then I sometimes get up - I like to see the curtain call.)

    Anyway, Thom is absolutely right that the audience got up on its feet and seemed quite enthusiastic. But what I saw from my vantage point I wouldn't describe as a jump.

    MK - Thanks for the tips!
  4. Racheal McCaig from Toronto, Canada writes: Come see Nursery School Musical Thursday July 10th, at 9:15 on the Factory Mainstage. Of course, if you do, you should probably read the comments left on your site about the Drowsy Chaperone moniker. www.NurserySchoolMusical.ca
  5. Liza Balkan from Canada writes: Hi there,
    Please come to Opera On the rocks at Paupers Pub. 9 PM every night , save for a 4PM saturday Matinee.
    The singers are incredible - stunning voices and fine actors and improvisors(!) The entire 2nd floor of the bar is used. The writers: Dave Carley, Leanna Brodie, Lisa Codrington and Krista Dalby and composer David Ogborn have created something wild for the opera world.
    Ok I'm biased. I directed the piece. But I continue to be surprised and thrilled by this group of fine artists.
    Best,
    Liza Balkan
  6. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: We were talking about perspective, and if that is your cold perspective after such a relatively brief foray into theatre reviewing, then so be it. I will acknowledge that there are times when I find myself in the midst of a standing ovation I don't quite comprehend, but in my own experience, which is thirty years of acting, directing and writing, covering probably two hundred different productions, and averaging each about four weeks of shows having given me, say, 6400 chances to enjoy a standing ovation, I would say I have received about thirty or forty. And so, to me, a standing ovation is a meaningful and important symbol of appreciation from an audience, until, of course, it is diminished or belittled by those who don't perhaps quite understand its value. And whether people stand slowly, quickly, spring lightly, leap wildly, or whatever other physical contortion is required to legitimize the act, I take it at face value, but then I am not in the business of assigning invented values to art.
  7. Saxon Conrad from Canada writes: Hmmm. Alas (because I feel like I'm betraying my kind), I must agree with the critic on this issue. First of all, my career in the theatre has not been as long, as storied, or as high-profile as Mr. Panych's, but I've certainly experienced more than 30 or 40 standing ovations...and I don't at all think that that's been because of the higher quality of my shows. Moreover, as an audience member (a much more infrequent, relatively, occurrence), I feel that a good number of times I've been peer-pressured into a standing O either because I too wanted to see the curtain call, or because I didn't want my remaining seated to be interpreted as disdain when it was probably just less-than-enthusiasm. But speaking of perspective, I don't think yours, Kelly's, is a particularly cold one, nor even a particularly slanted one...certainly no more than Morris or Thom's. And I don't think that not mentioning the ovation in your review was fact-fudging in order to make your point. Trying to attribute motivations to ovations, as well as trying to rate the speed at which they occur, seems to me a losing proposition and one that probably wouldn't serve the cause of theatre criticism in the long run. (Although I would love to see critics point out more often when their assessments seem to run wildly counter to the rest of the audience around them; THAT seems more along the lines of what Morris is talking about.) Point is, I think Morris's anger is the result, once again, of artists feeling like they get the short end of the stick when it comes to whole reviewing process, and so there's a lot of pent up frustration dying to come out. Thanks, Kelly, for actually providing a forum to discuss some of these points. I've heard and read so many critics talk about their reviews as a way of opening up a "dialogue" about current theatre, but frankly...they just aren't. A blog like this is really the only way that may be able to come about.
  8. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: Maybe it's pointless and even counter productive to initiate a dialogue based on the politics of standing ovations. Actually, I don't care. I think the conversation I wanted to have was about perspective and in that you are right, Saxon, I am expressing my frustration. The reader has no idea about what is happening at a theatre event and has only the reviewer to rely on. The reviewer needs to be careful about and respectful of this very special position he holds. I don't often get that feeling. I think what I more often get the feeling of is a quickly dashed off, ill considered, poorly thought out, and completely subjective knee jerk reaction to a painstakingly constructed, carefully considered, well thought out piece of theatre.
  9. MK Piatkowski from Canada writes: Just a quick comment about standing Os. I see a lot of theatre and too many times I feel railroaded into standing Os. Maybe it's because I've seen so much that a show has to be pretty special to get me to my feet so now I'd rather miss the curtain call than be part of sheep-like mentality. And I'm sure the people that start the O really do feel it. But too many times after those few people start, it really feels like one is expected to stand, otherwise it's an insult to the performers. Morris, that seems to be your point, one I disagree with.

    This especially connects with my pet peeve, long curtain calls. Get on quickly, take your bows, get off. If we really like you, we'll keep clapping and you can come back out. Kelly, if one of my shows ever has a long curtain call, promise me you'll shoot me. I will have been replaced by a pod person.
  10. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: Applause is what we live for.
  11. Guy Yedwab from United States writes: Morris: I'm interested in your comment about certain criticism being an ill-thought-out response to a well-thought-out production. It doesn't appear to be very connected to your original comment.

    Your original comment was about "slanted perspective" in regards to the critic's view that the standing o was obligatory. Having spent a frustrated night at the New York Ballet where not only did curtain calls feel obligatory, they were observed after every. single. dance., I must agree that the standing o is becoming a little meaningless of a convention. As, in fact, clapping itself has become--I can't imagine a production, no matter how bad, that does not have applause (however lukewarm) at the end.

    After hearing that response, however, you backed down, and indicated the overall tone of the piece. The tone is, admittedly, not kind. I can't judge how fair it was without having seen the performance myself (I'm not even in Canada) but to a certain extent, a work of art does not come across the same as a critique, which is a log of the critic's impressions of a production.

    On another note: it is a little difficult for an actor to objectively evaluate an opening night, because it is much harder to tell whether there's an obligatory sense to the standing ovation if you're separated from the audience. Sometimes I (an actor) know what the audience thinks, sometimes not. If you are in an environment which is insulated from criticism and which is given positive feedback, you might come with a rosy view of a performance. Which is one reason we have critics.
  12. Saxon Conrad from Canada writes: No, no, no. I have to agree with Morris. (At least, I think I do...the thread has become about many topics already.) His frustration, as I think he said, was really more about the "perspectives" of reviews in general than about a specific observation about a particular standing ovation. And while I'm not sure I can agree with his beef about this particular review (not having seen the production), I can absolutely agree with the feeling of frustration he feels about reviews in general -- though maybe this is the tangential topic. But really. Artists work for months on a piece. A reviewer spends at most a few hours on his critique. Is it any wonder that that seems out of balance -- especially since, thanks to the internet and library archives, a review will last much longer and have a vastly wider audience than the production itself will have? And yes, as an artist I share Morris's frustration (even anger) that many reviewers don't seem to acknowledge their rarified place...because they're not just offering their opinions about a show, they're creating the historical record for a production which will last long after the set has been torn down and the actors have moved on to their next gig. And in that respect then, yes, why wouldn't someone be pissed off that there's no mention of a standing ovation? (Although, for the reasons I've said, I don't think that ultimately serves the cause either...because who knows why people are standing?) Guy mentions the pitfalls of being insulated from criticism. But I think that the definition of "criticism" has become part of this discussion. Kelly, once again, I applaud this effort to engage however fruitfully or fruitlessly in a discussion via your blog. But I can't say that many of your colleagues show the same interest. And it's with you all that I would like to have a discussion about what makes valid or constructive or even fair criticism.
  13. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: The reviewer seemed to be indicating that the response to the show was a dishonest response - based on his summation that ovations are commonplace, ergo all ovations are phoney. I don't think so. Are we really that cynical?
  14. David Copelin from Toronto, Canada writes: While it may be true, as Morris says, that we theatrefolk hunger for applause, there is junk applause just as there is junk food. I don't want to trivialize standing ovations by giving one to every show I see. Even though sitting one out can make me feel like a curmudgeon, doing so keeps me honest. As a playwright, I certainly enjoy it when audiences spring to their feet and shout "Bravo!" But I don't trust it as a true mirror of group aesthetic approval, not when it has become so routine as to be virtually meaningless.
  15. Trevor Street from Toronto, Canada writes: I find it quite quite easy to distinguish the genuine heartfelt standing O from the labored mechanical supportive "junky" one. For instance,heartfelt ones occur mostly every night at the St Jame's Theatre in New York at the end of Patti Lupone's electrifying Rose's Turn in Gypsy and then again at the curtain call, not just for her but also for her co-stars who give amazing performances. This is from a majority of people who paid $117.00 a ticket and who obviously feel they got their monies worth. I witnessed the same heartfelt reaction at Shaw last week when I saw The President, particularly at the moment Lorne Kennedy came out to take his curtain call. It was deserved as he was extraordinary and as was the production. In fact I have to say that it is the best thing I have seen at Shaw this year so far.
  16. Michael Lista from Canada writes: Mr. Panych,

    Whether or not the ovation has become the victim of inflation, overbought and undersold by philistines and stage mothers, is certainly worthy of debate. But your debating whether or not your standing ovation for your show is meaningful is certainly misguided, and belies a defensiveness that only gives credo to your critics (who are, let's come out and say it, only ever goading artists of your eminence for the slim chance of being acknowledged). I get the same shame-faced sensation of butt-tingles when I read poets contesting the handling of their Pulitzer shoe-ins in the pages of the TLS, or historians fact-correcting their detractors in the NYRB. If anything, this sort of gesture confirms J. Kelly Nestruck's claim; the ovation at your show was so flimsy a thing that it needed your propping it up in these pages. The hell with them! Not that I -- and I'm sure Mr. J. Kelly Nestruck as well, who sadly dropped the flourish of his first initial when posting in the comments section -- don't revel in seeing your name luxuriating in the blog comments. But it's beneath you, sir, and as pure form undermines your content.
  17. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: Well, I hardly ever get standing ovations so when I do, I tend to want take them at face value. In the most existential way, perhaps I don't believe, but yet I need to believe. No one doubts that there are a lot of standing ovations out there; many undeserved. But really, I was trying to make a point about the reviewers dismissal of Thom's observation as somehow being 'slanted'. Everyone's view is slanted, including the reviewers. Guy Yedwab says it is difficult for an actor to evaluate an opening night? Why any more so than the reviewer? Is the actor incapable of seeing or understanding what he has done? Is the actor so inept, such a self-deluded child, that he can't possibly make a proper, clear evaluation of his own work? Are artists unable to think or speak for themselves? I have heard Thom speak about his own work. It is not always flattering. In fact, on opening night he told me he thought he could have done better. He is, as are many talented theatre people, entirely capable of self-criticism. There are many things about that show and many other shows I've been involved with that I could criticize, and do so as a professional responsibility. It is my job as an artist to understand my work and make it better. The writer says that we have critics for this reason. I don't need a critic to tell me how to do my work. I have experience, colleagues, and my own common sense. And after a long hard climb, and many hours of analysis and self-recrimination, of careful planning and sweat and anger and frustration, all to reach opening night, I think I can accept a little praise. And if, having seen Thom throw everything he has at his work and still not think it's enough, and take away from it the 'slanted' view that the audience jumped to their feet at the end, when in fact they only rose enthusiasically, or however they managed to get themselves from their asses to their feet, it's a standing ovation. And damn the reviewer who says otherwise.

  18. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: Yes, Michael, as with most things, it's beneath me; but what's a poor fellow to do with his internet time? I'm done with porn. Who knows; maybe we can make the young man who started this blog think a little. It's one thing to critique an actor, but to reach into the actors blog and critique that, too? Jesus.
  19. Kelly Nestruck from Toronto, Canada writes: Yikes. I'm hesitant to jump back in here, but I wanted to clear one thing up.

    I linked to Thom Allison's honest and insightful blog not to mock it,
    but because I thought the readers of this blog would be interested in
    reading about the opening night from an actor's perspective rather
    than just reading what the critics had to say. My intention wasn't to
    critique Allison's point-of-view, but to include it.

    It did not occur to me that the words "a slightly slanted perspective"
    would cause such a ruckus. (I have never come across a blog that did not have "a slightly slanted perspective".) I was simply trying to segue, apparently in too flip a manner for some people, into a plug for my (then) upcoming rave review of The President.

    As I commented higher up, I do not dispute that the opening night crowd at A Little Night Music was happy and on their feet. It's just that have rarely seen an audience as thrilled as the one the leapt up at the end of The President. C'est tout.
  20. Tee Schneider from Toronto, Canada writes: So much chat about Mr. Panych...doesn't he have enough??? Come and see The Shift....only 3 shows left!

    Royal St. George - 120 Howland

    Thu July 10 at 6:00 PM
    Sat July 12 at 7:00 PM
    Sun July 13 at 4:00 PM

    Heck, we'll bring it to whatever sidewalk you got flyer'd on if you prefer!
  21. philippa lloyd chambers from london, United Kingdom writes: I have been following this dialogue, if that is an accurate description (and perhaps not).

    It has always seemed to me that getting into a conversation with a reviewer (Mr N is NOT a critic..there are so few) can be such a muggs game> They will never play fair, the deck is stacked and few of them will ever truly understand the artists process --thus they are often seen as wannabes who can't. Having said that, if one plays in the game that includes reviewers as a part of the process of advertizing the work..one has to allow them to do their job. Which in this case is so wrapped up in the role of reviewing as the only world that counts. Few reviewers actually do, as Frye suggested, the CRITICS job of saying what something truly is (a very difficult job that takes a great deal of intelligence, insight and experience) and then earning the right to say whether it is good or bad>however Mr N could actually do a better job of writing about other aspects of theatre in Canada and elsewhere..he coulf take on the job of actually reporting in an insigthful way what happens behind the scenes (oh silence on Stratford's recent goings on) instead of parroting what Mr Ouzounian says in the BIG paper.
  22. Trevor Street from Canada writes: I tend to agree with Ms Lloyd certainly in one respect. In my opinion the closest thing we have to a proper theatre critic is Robert Cushman who writes for the National Post.
  23. Morris Panych from Toronto, Canada writes: Cushman is extremely intelligent and has a lot of years of theatre writing behind him; however he is also a playwright who wants to be produced and has a serious fashion problem (not irrelevant to those of us who count style as important). Also, he asked me out for dinner, once, and never picked up the tab; which means he's either forgetful, stingy, or both. Still, I love him; he's kind of cute in an insane English way, and loves to hang out at after parties and eat all the food, even when he didn't like the play, which illustrates, I think, a kind of objectivity.
  24. MK Piatkowski from Toronto, Canada writes: he coulf take on the job of actually reporting in an insigthful way what happens behind the scenes (oh silence on Stratford's recent goings on) instead of parroting what Mr Ouzounian says in the BIG paper.

    Just what are you expecting Kelly to do? Obviously people in Stratford don't want to talk about what happened. So do you want Kelly to speculate? Also, Kelly only gets so much space in the paper, and most of that is dedicated to reviews. His predecessors would only get the odd opinion piece. I haven't seen a change in philosophy at the Globe - have you?

    And can you give an example of Kelly parroting the Ouz? Because I've been following Kelly's reviews for years now and as far as I'm concerned he's the anti-Ouz. I'd be grateful to see some things to illustrate your point.

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	at GIS.Universal.XMLTransformer.transform(XMLTransformer.java:262)
	at GIS.Universal.XMLTransformer.transform(XMLTransformer.java:166)
	at GIS.HTMLComments.HTMLProducers.XSLProducer.generate(XSLProducer.java:85)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:1615)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:782)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.parse(HTMLTemplateParser.java:751)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:476)
	at GIS.Jel.JELSelectProducer.emitChoiceNode(JELSelectProducer.java:48)
	at GIS.Jel.JELSelectOneProducer.generate(JELSelectOneProducer.java:92)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:1502)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:782)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:945)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:782)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.parse(HTMLTemplateParser.java:751)
	at GIS.Common.HTMLTemplateParser.generate(HTMLTemplateParser.java:476)
	at GIS.Servlets.HTMLTemplate.generate(HTMLTemplate.java:316)
	at GIS.Servlets.HTMLTemplate.processRequest(HTMLTemplate.java:222)
	at GIS.Servlets.HTMLTemplate.doGet(HTMLTemplate.java:137)
	at GIS.Servlets.StoryHTMLTemplate.doGet(StoryHTMLTemplate.java:96)
	at javax.servlet.http.HttpServlet.service(HttpServlet.java:126)
	at GIS.Common.Servlet.service(Servlet.java:106)
	at javax.servlet.http.HttpServlet.service(HttpServlet.java:103)
	at com.caucho.server.http.FilterChainServlet.doFilter(FilterChainServlet.java:95)
	at com.caucho.server.http.Invocation.service(Invocation.java:291)
	at com.caucho.server.http.CacheInvocation.service(CacheInvocation.java:132)
	at com.caucho.server.http.RunnerRequest.handleRequest(RunnerRequest.java:341)
	at com.caucho.server.http.RunnerRequest.handleConnection(RunnerRequest.java:271)
	at com.caucho.server.TcpConnection.run(TcpConnection.java:136)
	at java.lang.Thread.run(Thread.java:662)