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updated: 11/1/2013 6:09 AM

From directing to dialogue: A look at theater reviewing

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  • Glinda (Jenn Gambatese) and Elphaba (Alison Luff) argue in "Wicked," opening tonight at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. The musical is the first in the Short & Sweet review series sponsored by the Daily Herald and Broadway in Chicago.

    Glinda (Jenn Gambatese) and Elphaba (Alison Luff) argue in "Wicked," opening tonight at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. The musical is the first in the Short & Sweet review series sponsored by the Daily Herald and Broadway in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Sarah Pouls is the Daily Herald's first reviewer for Short & Sweet.

    Sarah Pouls is the Daily Herald's first reviewer for Short & Sweet.


"Everyone's a critic."

What once was just an expression has become reality for anyone with an opinion and access to the Internet.

Thanks to the web's democratizing effect, arts criticism -- once reserved for select journalists and academics -- is now open to fans of theater, film, art, music or TV who choose to express their sentiments on everything from Facebook pages to YouTube videos.

That big tent is about to get even bigger, with the debut of Short & Sweet, a new theater review series featuring opinions from Daily Herald readers. This partnership between the Daily Herald and Broadway in Chicago offers readers the chance to review BIC productions and share their reviews online in a series of videos that will run at

The first lucky theater fan -- Sarah Pouls of Schaumburg -- starts tonight, with the opening of the musical "Wicked." So Daily Herald editors asked me to share some tips on reviewing theater, which I have been doing for the last decade. It's not enough to have an opinion. You have to be able to articulate it. And you have to back it up with examples from the production.

A good place to begin is with 18th-century German writer and critic Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, whose three questions provide a foundation for arts criticism still used today: What was the writer, composer, director, designer or actor trying to do? How well did he or she do it? Was it worth doing?

Maybe it's the reporter in me, but I like to begin with the script, or in the case of a musical, the book. It should have discernible, interesting ideas and a compelling plot that unfolds in a well-organized and logical way. Characters, with certain exceptions, should be distinct and three-dimensional. When they speak, whether they utter William Shakespeare's poetry, David Ives' barbs or David Mamet's invectives, they should express themselves appropriately.

In musicals, songs should reveal the characters and convey their emotional state as well as advance the plot. A musical's score also creates a mood and underscores dramatic themes. Choreography has a similar function in terms of character, plot, mood and themes. Generally, it should suit the play's period.

The responsibility for everything that happens on the stage falls to the director, who interprets the work and provides an overall vision for the production. Often responsible for casting, the director blocks the action and sets the pace. When a production doesn't work, when the message is unclear, when the action is sluggish, the buck stops at the director.

Assisting the director in realizing his or her vision is the artistic team. In crafting the place, setting a mood or reflecting a style, the designers help tell the story in a way that it doesn't overwhelm the text or the actors. Keep in mind, a set doesn't have to be spectacular to be effective.

The set designer conveys -- literally or through suggestion -- a real or imagined place in which the characters exist. The set has to fit the action and function well. In the event the setting changes, the transition should be unobtrusive. Besides making the action onstage visible, the lighting design ought to help convey mood, as should the sound design, which includes live and/or recorded sound effects. Anyone who experienced the helicopter scene in Drury Lane Theatre's 2009 production of "Miss Saigon" -- courtesy of sound designers Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath and lighting designer Jesse Klug -- understands the enormous impact sound and lights can have. As for costumes, they have to suit the period and location, while also revealing something about the character, his or her social status or personality. There's a reason, after all, why "Wicked's" Elphaba wears black and Glinda wears pink.

Last but not least, there's the acting. Actors should have command of their craft and be fluent in the language of the play, whether it's Shakespeare or Sondheim. Their performances should be convincing and sincere. They should be engaged even when they're not speaking. Cast members should have chemistry, especially when they're playing lovers. And we ought not see them sweat, unless the scene calls for it.

At its very best, theater examines what it means to be human. In doing so, it may move, provoke, inspire, educate or amuse. It may not bore.

So, at the end of the day, being a critic means serving as a kind of consumer advocate, advising theatergoers where to spend not just their money, but their time, which -- as Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire insists -- is just as valuable.

A critic for more than 30 years, Gire has developed a process worth sharing. Each movie has two stars (out of four) to start. It's up to the film to either earn or lose stars. It's a reasonable system. It's a workable system. But I can't follow it. Almost every performance I attend I think to myself: "This is going to be the best thing I've ever seen."

Sometimes I'm right. Sometimes I'm wrong. But I keep going back, and I would even if I wasn't there to review it.

• Want to try your hand at theater criticism? Fill out the questionnaire at for a chance to deliver a Short & Sweet video review.

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