Being a performing arts critic in a close-knit town like Memphis has its moments, most of them awkward. Like traveling in the same social circles as the artists I review. Picture an iron maiden sitting down to drink with heretics and you’ve got a good idea of how the conversation goes.
When our excellent film critic John Beifuss writes that a “rancid so-called romantic so-called comedy would be a better fit for one of the Eternal City’s apocryphal vomitoriums” (as he did in his zero-starred review of the 2010 bomb “When in Rome”), he does so with little apprehension that the movie’s director will dump a beer on his head at the P & H Café. According to local legend, my predecessor at The Commercial Appeal wasn’t so lucky.
For twelve years, I braced myself after certain scathing reviews for a shower of PBR, or worse, Bud Light. It never happened.
More often than not, after the initial sting of a bad review wore off, local actors, directors, dancers and musicians would tell me about the artistic struggles that undermined their efforts. I’ve never felt validation, only relief that I had the courage to print what I felt to be true.
I wrote my last review for The CA back in May, toward the end of a season that kept me dusting off the old superlatives (e.g. fantastic, terrific, top-notch, first-rate, etc.)
Undoubtedly, a thesaurus proved just as useful for the judges who decide the annual Ostrander Awards, the Memphis equivalent of the Tonys.
The winners will be announced Sunday at the Orpheum. They always generate some debate, but for the most part, the praise heaped upon this year’s nominees was justified.
Few technical collaborations packed a more subtle wallop than Christopher McCollum’s set, Jeremy Allen Fisher’s lighting and Matthew Stone’s sound design in Theatre Memphis’ vintage remount of “Talley’s Folly” on the Next Stage.
The experience was like being in a magical vortex, where the world of the play extended far beyond the walls of the theater.
The winner of best drama will likely be Playhouse on the Square’s “Angels in America Parts I and II,” an extraordinary six-hour undertaking that deserved each of its 11 nominations.
Actor Jerre Dye, who spilled his guts out each night as a man struggling to find meaning in his battle with AIDS, will probably walk away with another best actor Ostrander. Dye has since moved to Chicago, where we hope he finds the acclaim for which he is long overdue.
If a split decision for best drama were possible, however, Hattiloo Theatre’s timely “Hurt Village,” by the Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall, would be equally worthy.
No other ensemble explored the bleak realities of urban life in more poetic terms. This captivating work, set in a Memphis housing project and performed by actors who precisely limned our city’s vernacular, should be required viewing for locals. At a time when the country is roiling over joblessness, food stamps, inner-city violence and recalcitrant racial stereotypes, this play offered a heap of unsentimental context.
Coincidentally, social issues were also at the heart of the season’s two finest musicals, “Miss Saigon” and “The Color Purple,” a pair of back-to-back Playhouse tear-jerkers. (Theatre Memphis’ exceptional “A Chorus Line” is a glaring omission from the best musical category.)
After seeing the Broadway tour of “The Color Purple” at the Orpheum in 2009 and 2010, I expected lots of melodrama. But it was delicacy that defined the Playhouse production.
Claire D. Kolheim’s sincere and understated performance as Celie, an “ugly” woman abused by just about every man she meets, makes her a shoo-in for a best actress award. Her fragile, earthy voice was a stark contrast to Crystin Gilmore’s brassy delivery as Shug Avery. Valerie Houston, as the no-nonsense Sophia, completed this powerhouse trio with a gutsy Ma Rainey blues style.
In the Broadway incarnations, the three divas took to their music as if competing in the final round of “American Idol.” But at Playhouse, these Ostrander nominees chose substance over flash.
Local productions may not have the same kind of bigness or glossiness as a Broadway tour. But they can be far more sincere.
Sincerity, too, is a good benchmark for local arts critics, who, like those high-pitched divas, can be seduced by the spotlight. It’s always more satisfying to write a snarky review that readers will gossip about than it is to write something earnest and constructive.
I like to think the fear of having beer dumped on my head has helped keep me honest, if not eternally wary of the power of words.
Christopher Blank is news director at WKNO-91.1 FM.
Sunday at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Cocktails at 6 p.m.; ceremony begins at 7. Tickets $10. Tickets available at memphisflyer.com.