Mea Culpa: When critics are wrong

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Every reviewer has to find his own way in to a production. Some prefer to attend a show cold, as if he or she is just another member of the audience. My approach is to engage in as much research as possible. I find that reading plays and listening to musical scores in advance is valuable. Yet despite the best intentions, sometimes I get things wrong.

In last month's review of Morning's at Seven at Stray Dog, I got several things wrong. First I charged director Gary F. Bell with having changed the play's time frame from 1922 to 1939. I also accused him of having substituted a banana, which was integral to a visual laugh, with an apple, that seemed to kill the joke. After my review appeared, Bell sent me a gracious e-mail that assured me that Stray Dog had made no capricious changes to the script. "I believe you are remembering the 1980 Broadway revival," he wrote.

Indeed I was. That indelible revival remains one of the most satisfying experiences I have ever had in any theater. My hardbound edition of Morning's at Seven (which I re-read prior to attending the Stray Dog staging) was published in conjunction with that revival. That text includes the changes that director Vivian Matalon imposed on that production. Despite the fact that I think Matalon's tinkerings are improvements, I can hardly fault Bell for having adhered to the original script.

Over the years I have been guilty of other errors. In a 2003 review of Cinderella at the Muny, I wrongly stated that one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's more peripatetic songs, "Boys and Girls Like You and Me," which has been associated with four different musicals prior to landing in Cinderella, was written for the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Wrong. A scathing letter to the editor from the director of music at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization included a chronology of the song's history so detailed as to be almost as long as my original review. Earlier this summer another letter to the editor chastised me for having misidentified the unseen corpse that functioned as set dressing in the wooing scene between Richard and Lady Anne in Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' Richard III.

Minor details? Perhaps. None of these factual errors significantly altered the intent of the review. Richard III was lame regardless of who was in the coffin. Cinderella remained an enchanted evening of melody and dance irrespective of when one particular song was first rejected by another show. And Morning's at Seven will always work better for me when set in pre-Jazz Age 1922 than in Depression-era 1939.

But a discussion about facts raises the question of what it is that reviewers do (and do not do). It seems to me that the least of a theater critic's responsibilities is to pass judgment. Very few people really care whether I like or dislike a production. An opinion, while not totally out of place, should be secondary to a recounting of the experience. To borrow a phrase from historian Richard Morris, first and foremost we are witnesses at the creation. In order to be vivid and specific — and credible — a review also should be as accurate as possible. The occasional factual error certainly can be condoned, but it should not be sloughed off.

For the aforementioned errors, as well as for those that are sure to occur in the future, I can only echo the words of Rhett Butler: "I apologize for all my shortcomings." 

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