Hey, Philadelphia! Leave Those Critics Alone!


OMG, as the cast of Glee might say. Although I’m using the acronym somewhat acrimoniously. Will theater artists stop attacking a certain theater critic — my friend Wendy Rosenfield — in Philadelphia?

First there was the debacle surrounding Love, Jerry, the controversial incest-themed tuner produced by Nice People Theatre Company, who proved to be lots of things I wouldn’t necessarily characterize as being nice.

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Now there’s a new incident, this one relating to Media Theatre’s production of the Frank Wildhorn-Leslie Bricusse musical Jekyll & Hyde, which, when it opened on Broadway in 1997, put the “pulse” back in the word “repulsive” for a lot of critics. The opening line of Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times was:

“It’s only a ponytail that separates man from beast in Jekyll and Hyde, the leaden, solemnly campy musical that opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater last night…”

Further down is this:

Mr. Wildhorn’s pop-opera score, which makes Sunset Boulevard sound like Parsifal, is most notable for shivery musical vamps found in films like The Omen and a generic inspirational swell that politicians and athletes like to have soaring in the background as a sort of apotheosizing halo of sound.

That Jekyll and Hyde ran for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway doesn’t mean the critics were wrong and the public was right. George W. Bush was president from eight years.

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But I digress. According to a piece by Rosenfield’s colleague, Jim Rutter, in the Broad Street Review, Jesse Cline, Media Theatre’s artistic director, comported himself like a self-sabotaging twit following the opening night bows, caroming from the stage right into the audience and directly over to Rosenfield and Rutter, engaging in something between an act of public berating and an incitement to burning in effigy. Whatever it was, apparently Cline had earlier attempted to stop Rosenfield from reviewing Jekyll and Hyde at all, citing her bias against melodrama — which is to say that if Jekyll and Hyde is melodrama, as opposed to monodrama, I have a plot of land in Florida to sell you, cheap cheap. Speaking of cheap, the point is that if Cline did try to stop Rosenfield from reviewing, he should hang up his hat pronto. Such a control-freak mentality is best left to graduate theater programs where such childishness can be properly drummed out of you. With all due respect to the show titles we all know sell tickets, this is Jekyll and Hyde, not Saint Joan.

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The story, however, gets weirder and weirder. So let me say, for what it’s worth, that having become acquainted with Rosenfield this summer, it’s hard for me to think of many critics more fair or non-agenda-driven than she is.

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You know what Cline is, if he really cavorted and carried on as they say he did? He’s a coward. After all, if your impulse is to control the critic or the criticism, chances are your work isn’t good enough to stand on its own.

Broad Street Review editor Dan Rottenberg, meanwhile, has taken a cue from the first two syllables of his surname and lashed out against — get this — Ritter, his own critic, for defending Rosenfield, for describing Cline’s post-performance meltdown and for calling out Cline for his boorishness.

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Rottenberg writes:

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…Cline and Rutter are two peas in a pod. Both of them work in communications but want to prevent other people from communicating. Cline wants to silence unfriendly critics. Rutter wants to silence actors who fail to meet his exacting standards. Both possess the courage to pursue their craft in public but want to discourage others from doing the same. Do these two guys deserve each other, or what?

Here’s my advice to both Cline and Rutter: You can’t prevent theatergoers- whether critics or anyone else- from communicating. Nor can you prevent actors from performing. If this is your approach to the craft of dramatic expression, you should find another line of work…

This isn’t about communication, Mr. Rottenberg. The issue around Cline is about class.

I also think Rosenfield is too understanding, but that’s her call and her editors’ call. On her blog, she writes:

…it’s Mr. Cline’s pulpit, and if he wants to use it for bullying purposes, fine. My editors felt it best to leave out any mention of the incident, and that’s also fine.

…What Cline did was childish and unprofessional; what Rutter did was his job. If Rottenberg doesn’t like the content of Rutter’s review, it’s his job as editor to return the review for a rewrite, and explain where Rutter’s logic doesn’t work… An editor is supposed to have your back, not stab you in it.

As for Cline, the next time a critic reviews his work, I hope he wears a face more handsome than the one he apparently sported at Jekyll and Hyde‘s opening night.