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Cue Sheet – August 2006


    Thursday has arrived, and with it my last contribution to the Tucson Weekly before I abscond to Italy for two weeks. (The Weekly will have a three-issue break from me, because even though it’s a two-week vacation, I’ll be gone for three theater weekends.) So if I become the victim of some airline mishap and don’t return to theater criticism, what will my final TW utterance be? A Gaslight Theatre review. Well, there are worse ways to go; Peter Sellers’ last movie was not the superb Being There, but the following year’s execrable The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. Anyway, here’s how I ease into the Gaslight review:

    Gaslight Theatre started out nearly 30 years ago doing gentle musical spoofs of 19th-century Western melodramas. Over time, the company has branched out to parodies of 1930s adventure serials and more recent science-fiction epics, but its current show drops a load of fruit and nuts down closer to the theater's roots. The Phantom of the Opera may not be a Western, but it's the right period, and the source material doesn't need to be tricked up much to suit the Gaslight's peculiar needs.
    Writer-director Peter Van Slyke's adaptation has a bit more to do with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical than with the original Gaston Leroux novel; in the beginning, the Phantom is clearly dangerous, but by the end, he's a sympathetic character, and everybody manages to live happily ever after, one way or another. (Come on, I'm not spoiling any surprises; surprise isn't what anybody goes to Gaslight for, anyway.)
    As you surely know, Phantom of the Opera is set in the Paris Opera House, and the extensive lake-soaked caverns beneath it. A mysterious, masked figure haunts the theater, intimidating singers and staff and meanwhile preparing an innocent young woman, Christine, for a brilliant operatic debut--not to mention for life as the Phantom's mate. Christine, though, has her eye on a dashing young count named Raoul. The Phantom is displeased. Various bad things happen, involving a crashing chandelier, a shocking unmasking and some questionable organ playing.
    The show starts out slowly, rather like the review, but it picks up nicely by midpoint. You can read the full evaluation here.



    Via ArtsJournal, here’s a link to a Philadelphia Magazine article about perhaps the nastiest theater critic since John Simon, the locally (but not universally) reviled Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I’d never heard of Zinman, but from what I’ve read of her own work and of her detractors this morning, she seems to be 1) a highly knowledgable, experienced theater critic 2) who tends to write either raves or, more often, pans, with little nuance in between, 3) and who regularly indulges a catty sort of cruelty. Her reviews can be great fun to read, if you’re not an actor or director or writer.
    A critic has to make honest evaluations of what’s on stage, but there’s usually no reason to get nasty. A review is not just a plot summary; indeed, I usually write as little about the plot as possible. It’s an analysis of all the various components that go into a production. And if a critic is going to serve a purpose distinct from that of publicist, the analysis has to be frank and even-handed. No special lenience for one’s friends, no vendettas against artists with whom the critic does not get along. Observe carefully, do whatever homework may be necessary, and evaluate in a way that will be meaningful to readers.
    Thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews usually aren’t meaningful, because they don’t reflect the complexity of what’s on stage. In 18 years of reviewing concerts and plays and CDs (and, on occasion, films and dance performances and books), only a couple of times have I encountered something so bad that it had no redeeming qualities at all. Neither have I been compelled to write absolute raves very often, because perfection is a rare thing. Readers sometimes complain that there are too many shades of gray in my reviews, and they can’t tell whether I liked the show or not. Well, in the first place, aesthetics don’t usually come down to like/dislike, except for people who haven’t outgrown childish gut reactions. In the second place, why should you care, really, whether I like or dislike something? Isn’t it more relevant to you if I describe my perception of the positive and negative (and interesting and dull) elements of a production in a way that helps you decide if you might like it?
    Not long ago, an actor who was about to leave town got up the courage to say hello to me outside a theater. (How do these people recognize me? I try to keep a low profile.) He thanked me not for writing nice things about him, but for being fair, even when I’d been critical of productions he’d been involved in. That’s the most meaningful compliment a critic could hope for.



    I saw a summary of a New York Times article about a study at New Jersey's Morristown Memorial Hospital, where a harpist is stationed in the recovery room; the study is looking into the effectiveness of harp music as a healing aid for heart-surgery patients. First thing I thought was, “Those patients are going to regain consciousness and get the wrong idea.” Sure enough, here’s the story’s lede: “When George Moran woke up on Tuesday, he thought he had died and gone to heaven.”
    The first time I met harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, I sat down with her for a long interview for a magazine article. At the end, she thanked me for never bringing up the usual questions about the harp’s “angelic” nature. Surely harpists get sick of that association, just as they probably get tired of playing those endless arpeggios by composers who don’t know what else to do with the instrument. Too bad, because the harp is capable of a great many other things … and not every harpist is an angel.
    What instrument does not carry some unfortunate association? Until a couple hundred years ago, the trombone was regarded as the instrument of the devil; in the 20th century, thanks to its ability to play lewd glissandi, the trombone took up with strippers in the public mind (the saxophone also developed lascivious associations), while the violin became the devil’s instrument, thanks in part to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. People tend to hold “oboe” and “duck” in the same thought (thank you, Prokofiev), and Danny Kaye, in the song “Anatole of Paris,” popularized the notion that the oboe is an ill wind that no one blows good. As the butts of jokes, violists are the new Poles and blondes, and bassists and drummers don’t fare much better. Until the time of Bach, cellists were regarded as continuo hacks; real musicians played the viola da gamba. Despite the best efforts of people like Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flute is still regarded as an instrument for cute little blonde girls, not professionals. The bassoon struggles to overcome its image as the clown of the orchestra.. The trumpet has no setting below “11” on its volume control, and a horn concert is inevitably a clam bake. So what does that leave? The clarinet, I suppose, is the one orchestral instrument completely lacking negative connotations. It might be nice to wake up in a cardiac unit and hear a crooning clarinet, as long as it wasn’t playing some long, sustained note that made you think you were flatlining.

Classical Music,


    David Hurwitz issues this dispatch on the musical to-do over the de-planetization of Pluto. Hint: Don’t take any of it seriously, except for the sentiment expressed in the last paragraph.

Classical Music,


    Apropos of my recent post about the odd NPR funding credit, KUAT news guy Robert Rappaport has reactivated his own blog and revealed the identity of the voice of NPR underwriting. His name is Frank Tavares, and you can read about him here. Robert also provides a link to an audio interview with Tavares, but I'll let you find that yourself at Robert's blog.



    English music critic Jessica Duchen, who is married to a London Philharmonic violinist, rightly decries the idiotic British prohibition of carrying one’s valuable musical instruments into the passenger cabin of an airplane. But she makes one curious statement:

If we are now going to turn into a xenophobic, paranoic, protectionist little island—as the USA appears to be doing its best to become—and our musician friends are forced to base themselves elsewhere, as may yet happen if this bloody mess is here to stay, then I just won't want to be here any more.
    What does she mean, “going to turn into”? If she’s stuck at home or in exile for a while, perhaps she should read up on British history, and think about why she’s buying history books with pounds rather than euros.


About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.