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Critics' chorus: Silent Night?

Byron Woods 

Critics' chorus: Silent Night?

Our holiday show reviews begin this issue with Temple's Taffeta Christmas and Long Leaf Opera's Amahl and the Night Visitors. Next week, word on Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker, Raleigh Little Theater's Cinderella, and Theater in the Park's Christmas Carol.

Enjoy: they'll probably be the only critical coverage these shows will get in any local newspaper, as critical silence has joined wicked stepmothers and triplicate yuletide ghosts as regional holiday traditions.

The numbers alone would argue against it. The Nutcracker and Christmas Carol are easily among the year's most widely seen shows. Attendance at both has rivaled--or exceeded--the houses from the rest of their producing companies' seasons combined.

Those shows not only command some of the year's largest audiences, their audiences pay some of the highest prices for live performance.

Thanks to Ticketmaster, $54 top-shelf tix for Christmas Carol actually cost $62.25 apiece. Front-of-house Nutcracker seats pop the $64 question--before Ticketmaster elevates them to $72.25.

By comparison, front row seats for the The Seussical are $40--but then, that show didn't do so well on Broadway. Smashes like Rent and The Graduate trump The Nutcracker--by one whole dollar: Their best seats are $65.

All are pricier than prime seats at Playmakers ($40) and American Dance Festival ($36).

And the cheap seats aren't that cheap. At Christmas Carol, a family of three pays Ticketmaster $53.00 for the back balcony. For Nutcracker it's a rock-bottom $49.75 on Ticketmaster. Carolina Ballet expects to gross $1.2 million-plus from the show this year.

So why is it so hard to find any word in print about whether these shows are actually any good?

Return to the land of the silent bargain. Regional critics know well that these large local companies depend on blockbuster holiday shows to generate much of their yearly budget.

You know, the only thing more touching than the degree to which we critics overestimate our own strength is the degree to which we're sometimes encouraged to.

We simply must exercise restraint. Just think: If a single bad review sinks a holiday show--why, it could jeopardize a company's whole season, and its future! Such is the awesome power ... of a fully operational theater critic!

Puh-lease. Shows this large are not quaking at anything a critic is going to write--and if they are, something is desperately wrong.

By now, Nutcracker, Christmas Carol and Cinderella have all grossed into the millions. The track record of the last two goes back for decades. They all go on sale months before opening night, to a large and well-heeled population of supporters. That group is a lot more faithful to these companies than to its critics, particularly when their own children are frequently found among the hordes on stage.

This, friends, is the working definition of the term "critic-proof."

Other reasons for critical reticence: Aloofness to mass taste? The critics' own deep suspicions that they'll be bored--that nothing will have changed in different years' productions? Even if such misgivings are well-founded, it's funny that this problem rarely arises for repeats of Shakespeare, Ibsen or Moliere.

When we asked arts and entertainment editor Suzanne Brown why The News and Observer doesn't review holiday shows, she wrote, "Quality can generally be taken on faith for a production successful enough to be revived every year. So instead of reviewing, we look for fresh ways to keep people plugged in and to tell newcomers about a show's essence."

The paper's latest example: a Dec. 8 "Look Who's Coming" profile of "Ebenezer Scrooge, Miser," featuring Ira David Wood III. Amusing. But you still can't tell if the show's any good. Judging by the N&O's on-line archives, the paper hasn't reviewed the show since the 1980s.

Then there's the question of The N&O's substantial philanthropic relationships with Carolina Ballet and Raleigh Little Theatre. Carolina Ballet's programs notes that the N&O has given over $60,000 in in-kind gifts and contributions this year. Another page lists the paper's membership in the Ballet's "Founding Patron Society," whose "extraordinary support ... provided the initial capital financing for the creation of Carolina Ballet ..." N&O publisher Orage Quarles III is also listed among the Ballet's Board of Directors.

Paul Brown, chairman of the N&O Grants Committee, confirmed that the paper donated $10,000 to Raleigh Little Theater last year. This year, the paper's "media sponsorship" is featured on the cover of every playbill.

Suzanne Brown asserts that N&O corporate philanthropy has no influence on the paper's coverage. But both RLT and Carolina Ballet have arguably received kid glove treatment in recent years. The N&O archives indicate that The Nutcracker was the subject of at least two features and six "best bet" or previews last winter--none of which managed to give a critical take on the show. While RLT has received a number of uniformly affirming features, bets and previews this year, the last time an N&O reviewer actually critiqued a show there was in April 2002.

All of these have arguably contributed to a seasonal critical eclipse, which has regularly left tens of thousands of arts patrons in the dark. Lately, when the year's largest audiences have needed its critics most, all they've gotten is a chorus of "Silent Night."

Those with an eye for the unusual in Christmas gifts might want to bid on racing laps at the Virginia International Speedway and other curiosities when 5 Chick Posse presents a benefit auction and performance Dec. 14 at EVOO in Raleigh. At 7:30 p.m., Courtney Greer, Beth Wright and Susan Quinn will show new works. At 8 p.m., Brett Wilson gavels donated art, goods and experiences to fund the company's 2004 season. For more info, call 838-8195. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings

OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS:
Non-seasonal: Tiny Ninja Theater: Romeo & Juliet, Manbites Dog, thru Dec. 14; Doing More Than Time, N.C. Women's Prison Theater Project, Carrboro Artscenter, Dec. 13; Beauty and the Beast, N.C. Kids Theater, PSI Theater & Carolina Theater, thru Dec. 19

Seasonal: Sorry! Wrong Chimney, Actors Comedy Lab, Thompson Theater, N.C. State, thru Dec. 21; A Dickens of a Christmas, Triad Stage, Greensboro, thru Dec. 21; The Night Before Christmas Carol, EbzB Productions, Pittsboro Counthouse, Dec. 11; Concert Dancers of Raleigh, Jones Auditorium, Meredith College, Dec. 14; A Christmas Carol, Theatre in the Park, BTI Center, thru Dec. 17; Cinderella, Raleigh Little Theater, thru Dec. 21.

REVIEWS:
***1/2 Hobson's Choice, Playmakers Rep--This surprisingly graceful comedy presents Anarchy in the U.K. --one century removed--as Rachel Fowler's unsinkable Maggie Hobson single-handedly upends Victorian social order in her family's Manchester shoe store. As her obese, obtuse and miserly father, Robert Breuler, recalls Leo McKern's finest work in Rumpole but with twice the vinegar. When he sentences her to spinsterhood (and a lifetime of endless free labor in his shop), Maggie revolts, arranging marriages for her vain sisters, and her own to downtrodden downstairs bootmaker Willie (Jeffrey Blair Cornell). The balance of the thing still impresses: If the characters were any more intransigent, ground down or calculating, you'd have tragedy or melodrama. But characters' fortunes and the social order miraculously turn, without crushing anyone, this once. (Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. Thru Dec. 21. UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill. $32-$10. 962-7529.)

***1/2 A Taffeta Christmas, Temple Theater--Who cares if it's mid-December? This musical grab bag of 1950s popular songs proves it's never to late to go back to, uh, camp. When a squeaky clean quartet patterned on mid-century girl groups introduced a song as a holiday favorites of their parents, we braced for insulin shock, until an addled "Jambalaya"--complete with ridiculous synchronized swimming choreography lifted from old Esther Williams films--reassured us this wasn't your average holiday musical. Though this second Taffeta show is thinner on character and plot than the first, there's more than enough laughs and improbably goony song segues to make this campy send-up worth the drive to Sanford. Thus far, the most entertaining holiday show we've seen this year. (Thurs., 1:30 & 7 p.m.; Fri-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2:30 p.m. Thru Dec. 21. 120 Carthage St., Sanford. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

**1/2 Amahl and the Night Visitors, Long Leaf Opera, NCCU Theater and Music--It's the kind of notice one simply hates to give. Even if the script is thin, Menotti's mid-century score is a fitting antidote for ears jaded by Tchaikovsky, and Denise Payton's luminous soprano as the mother of a crippled shepherd boy is something to behold. In places, the boy soprano's voice in the title role was equally thrilling. But his problems with pitch, intelligibility and projection throughout, ultimately indicate he shouldn't have been put in the position of leading this production. (Closed Dec. 7)

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