Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: What makes a good play review really good

Seymour (Matt Seckman) and Audrey (Meaghan Sharrard) saw the possibilities of Seymour's plant, Audrey II, as Mr. Mushnik (Jacob Karnes) watched in SummerFest's Little Shop of Horrors.
Seymour (Matt Seckman) and Audrey (Meaghan Sharrard) saw the possibilities of Seymour's plant, Audrey II, as Mr. Mushnik (Jacob Karnes) watched in SummerFest's Little Shop of Horrors. Lexington Herald-Leader

Tedrin Blair Lindsay's review of SummerFest's production of Little Shop of Horrors was better than most people realize.

Certainly any company is going to be happy with a review that says, "The cast is uniformly superb, singing with gusto, dancing with flair and acting with comic intensity," and cheers on the leading man saying, "A big bravo to the big nebbish!"

It was a flat-out rave by any measure, and even more so when considered against Tedrin's reviews of previous SummerFest musicals.

Given his expertise in musical theater, of which Tedrin is a practitioner as well as a critic, he is our go-to guy for the genre, and the past few years, he has had constructive but firm criticism of SummerFest productions of A Chorus Line and Legally Blonde — The Musical.

And that's why it is important for a critic to be honest — fair, of course, but honest.

Had Tedrin looked past the shortcomings of previous shows so as to avoid hurting feelings or having his name excoriated in review comments and on social media, his praise for Little Shop wouldn't have had near the weight it carried.

The classic caricature of a critic is embodied in pop culture by Jebidiah Atkinson, Saturday Night Live's 18th century critic, played by Taran Killam, who can't even muster kind words for the Gettysburg Address or A Charlie Brown Christmas. And yes, bad reviews can be fun to read (and sometimes write).

But in my critic days, I always maintained I would rather have a good night than a bad night, and so I believe I and other critics usually come in to a show predisposed to liking it.

But almost worse than being a critic who hates everything is being the critic who likes everything. It's a fast track to not being taken seriously, to having your rave reviews mean little except to the egos of the recipients of your praise.

Critics shouldn't be writing reviews for the artists. They're supposed to be writing for you, the reader, giving you an objective, knowledgeable and experienced take on the program at hand.

Now a good critic will be fair and see things for what they are, in context. Of course a community theater that charges $15 a seat should not be held to the same standard as a national touring production that charges $75 a seat. But you can have an invigorating or disappointing night anywhere.

That brings us back to being honest. And note, I didn't say right.

Of course, a review is an opinion. Yes, there are things the vast majority of us can agree are terrible — Batman and Robin, the one with George Clooney — or great, like the first two Godfather movies, no matter what Jebidiah says.

But in between lies the vast majority of everything else, where there can be valid arguments for the quality or lack thereof. We review to give readers an informed opinion of what is out there. We know it's not always easy to hear critiques; we hear them all the time.

Looking at my own work, I often say I would not have grown if all of my mentors and critics just said I was great from the first word I scribbled. Those critiques have often challenged me, served as caution signs and sometimes been ignored.

The relationship between a critic and artist is different. We don't suppose to say we could do it better. We are saying, based on our experience, this is what we thought.

But we all know how satisfying it is when we get our toughest critic to say "good job."