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THEATER TALK: A Rash Of Mediocrity

Katie Buenneke |
May 29, 2012 | 1:40 p.m. PDT

Theater Editor

A few hours ago, it was announced that La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Hands on a Hardbody" will be transferring to Broadway in the 2012-13 season. This irked me irrationally. I saw "Hardbody" in previews (and so was not allowed to review it, and even talking about it here is probably a no-no), and my impression of it was that it was fine, but not particularly great. Now, it's quite possible that the show changed considerably in the two weeks between when I saw it and when it opened, but it's not the only "fine, but not great" show that I've seen that transferred to Broadway.

Now you can call me a romantic or an elitist or a relic of a bygone era or whatever you want, but I've put Broadway up on a pedestal in my mind. To me, Broadway is where truly great theater should exist—not that it can't exist elsewhere, it certainly does, but if I had my way, Broadway theaters would only be filled with significant, great works of performing art. Of course, great is a subjective term, but I'd like to think I'm intelligent enough to recognize a great work, even when it doesn't speak to me personally. But in what I can only call a disturbing new trend (or perhaps it's not that new, perhaps it's just that I'm paying more attention now), Broadway houses are filled with "fine, but not great" shows that producers hope will make a lot of money.

I expect more from Broadway! When I see a show on Broadway, when I'm forking over $120 per seat, I want to see something that's better than just good (which might explain why I almost exclusively buy discounted tickets unless I've seen it before and know I'll like it—but that's a whole other barrel of monkeys). I want to see something that's great, something that will stay with me, and hopefully even change my life. I want to learn something from the show, something I can take with me. I want to have a spirited discussion about the show with my friends on the way home. Granted, that's the experience I want out of every show I see, but for some reason, I'm more forgiving if that doesn't happen when I'm seeing a regional production of a show—probably because I paid less for it (unless it's at Arena Stage, where seats are an almost-prohibitive $109, but again, other barrels of monkeys). Or it might be because I put Broadway up on such a high pedestal. Regardless, though, when I hear that shows like "Leap of Faith" and "Bring It On" are transferring to Broadway, I can't help but feel a little disappointed. When I saw both shows at the Ahmanson, I found them generally enjoyable, but not particularly memorable. That's not to fault the performers or creative teams—both had very talented casts, and teams whose other works I've greatly enjoyed—but these two shows were kind of forgettable.

And then when I compare those shows in my mind to regional productions like Arena's "Oklahoma!" or the Asolo Rep's "Yentl," I feel even more irked. Those two shows were among the best theater-going experiences of my life, yet as far as I know, neither will make it to Broadway any time soon (I'd be happily proven wrong, for the record). I hate to throw "Leap of Faith" and "Bring It On" under the bus, but I can't help but think that there are other productions across the country that are more deserving of being on Broadway—because they are great, not just good.

Now I have very little (i.e. no) say in what shows do and do not transfer, and I can sit here at my computer all day and rant about what does and does not belong on Broadway, but in the end, producers are going to do what they're going to do. Just looking at "Leap of Faith," though, which lasted 19 performances after opening on Broadway, and closed at what must have been a considerable loss ($14 million, according to the New York Times), I can't help but wonder if its spot on Broadway would have been better filled with a better show. While I didn't see the regional productions of "Catch Me If You Can" and "Bonnie and Clyde," my guess is that they, like their final products, were fine, but not great. When it comes to producing a show, there's no way to predict a hit (even critically acclaimed off-Broadway hits, like "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "Lysistrata Jones" can struggle in a bigger house), it only seems logical that great shows will succeed, since that's what audiences want to see: great shows.

Reach Katie here, or follow her on Twitter @kelisabethb.



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