As a theater critic, I agonize over star ratings.
They are, as almost anyone who's been on the receiving end of a bad review will tell you, imperfect measures of a complex art form whose manifold nuances and moving parts defy simplistic metrics.
But they are also inordinately useful to readers and potential theatergoers, especially in a city with more than two dozen active professional and semi-professional theater companies vying for your disposable income. After many years of research and deliberation, I've come to believe that the benefits of star ratings for consumers far outweigh their potential pitfalls as reductive measures of a production's quality.
The concerns of the readership, which supersede the concerns of theater companies seeking publicity, are prime.
There are a couple of reasons I've come to this conclusion, foremost of which is a fervent belief in the intelligence of the readers and theatergoers. The complaint I hear most often about star ratings is that they give readers an excuse not to process the entire review, allowing them to merely glance at the rating and make their decision without gathering any other context. This has always struck me as an enormously cynical take on the intelligence of potential audience members, few of whom place their blind trust in a numerical rating and seek no more information.
If a reader decides whether or not to attend a production based on the star rating without reading the review, it's likely because he or she knows and trusts the reviewer's work. But even if large numbers of potential theatergoers make decisions based on cursory glances at star ratings free of any context -- as unlikely a scenario as that is -- no amount of thoughtful press or audience outreach is likely to fix that problem.
That being said, it's important to acknowledge what a star rating is. It is not a definitive or objective evaluation of a play or production's intrinsic quality. It is an imperfect measure of an individual reviewer's response to a production on the night he or she saw it. Like Andrew Galarenau's restaraunt ratings ("plates," not stars), these subjective assignations take into consideration the extreme difficulty -- in fact, the near-impossibility -- of achieving the lightning-strike of theatrical perfection on opening night.
That being said, now seems like an appropriate time to remind readers, theatergoers and theater producers alike what our star ratings on theater reviews mean.
Every issue of Gusto contains this key:
In my evaluation, this means that a production that receives two stars likely has some redeeming qualities, even if it does not achieve what it set out to do. A three-star rating means that, in the reviewer's informed but ultimately subjective opinion, it got most things right, with only minor drawbacks that don't rise to the level of hobbling that production's goals. As you inch up past that point, to three and a half, you're making the assertion that a production's moving parts -- its choreography, its book, its score, its performances, lighting, set design, costumes -- have entered a near-perfect alignment.
A four-star rating, such as the one I recently assigned to the current tour of "Chicago," means that all those elements -- each one its own thicket of complicated problems -- worked in tandem to produce a rare theatrical experience. But to achieve a four-star rating, it's not enough for a production to simply deliver perfectly on the intentions it has set for itself. It must also be fueled by masterful source material.
That means that a perfect production of a flawed play should not receive a perfect rating. The selection of that material, after all, is the theater company's choice, and the selection of substandard material -- however well produced -- doesn't rise to the level of a perfect rating.
As for "Chicago," a show that received four-star ratings from our reviewers during its previous two visits with the same actors in the lead roles, its four-star rating does not mean that it is a perfect show or even a perfect production. It means that one of its many performances struck me, back in 2009 and on Tuesday (or Ben Siegel, in 2005), as a rare theatrical experience that perfectly executed a piece of peerless source material with drawbacks that could only be considered minor quibbles.
Any star-rating system faces issues with consistency, especially when multiple reviewers with different tastes assign ratings for the same publication. Working to make those ratings and reviewers' standards as consistent as possible without squelching individual voices is a constant challenge not only at The Buffalo News, but at any publication that hopes to aid the consumer in its entertainment decisions.
Just as theater is irreducible to any other form, theater reviews and the star ratings that accompany them are not perfectable. They are merely ad hoc guideposts, approximations of quality, blurry records of one evening's traffic on the stage.
This ought to go without saying, dear reader, but I'll say it anyway: In theater as in any other art form, the only way to truly grasp the full breadth and quality of any production is to experience it for yourself. Since everyone in Western New York cannot possibly attend every production, we have created this system as a service to readers. It's not perfect -- not by a long shot -- but it sure beats taking a stab in the dark.