The Critic Speaks...and so does Nicole

One of the advantages of being a "nobody" in the industry (and having a blog) is that I have absolutely nothing to lose by speaking my mind. 

And so, I'm going to do what every producer has probably always wanted to do, but would never dare.  I'm going to deconstruct the review we received on Broadway.com.  Yes, that's correct.  I'm going to critique our "critic." 

Come on, you know you've all wanted to do what I'm about to do!  But, instead, you try and pretend that a "lackluster" review doesn't exist.  So I'm going to do it for you, because I'm really no one in this industry except that crazy lady who wrote and fully produced a musical in under a year with a cast of nineteen (15 under the age of 16) while working a full-time job.

And if you are thinking, "Oh, Nicole.  Rise above it.  All that matters is that audiences are loving this show!  Your target audiences (see previous blogs) can't get enough of it!  You succeeded in what you set out to accomplish and this story is resonating with people."

And that's all true.  But, it does matter, because every time someone googles "Nicole Kempskie" or "Helen on 86th St." what they are going to read is that I didn't use enough "vertical angles" in my staging to hold the attention of our critic. They aren't going to be privy to the miracles that occurred while getting this horizontally challenged show off the ground.  How in six rehearsals on the weekends, I managed to put up a fully-produced show.  Or how my brilliant production team, working with almost no money made this show look like an Off-Broadway production.  Or how the COMMUNITY worked together to create a piece of art that could never have existed if we hadn't all worked together.  Or how the author of the short story and 70 of her colleagues and friends from D.C. took a charter bus to see the show and were beside themselves.

Getting a review that comments on vertical vs. horizontal staging techniques after what we've all been through reminds me why I hated math so much until we started getting "partial credit" if you "showed your work" and the teacher could see that everything was mostly right, until that tiny subtraction error you made at the end...("Partial credit" definitely saved me from failing math.)

So, join me, in looking a bit more closely at Ms. Vignola's "review."

Last week, Helen on 86th Street made its World Premiere at the American Theatre of Actors (314 W. 54th Street).  Based on the popular Wendi Kaufman short story, Helen follows the story of Vita.  Vita is a “Little Miss Sunshine”-type tween struggling with her mom, an absentee father and a disappointing role in the school production.  A new musical by Nicole Kempskie and Robby Stamper, it is a story of loss, longing and acceptance.  Like the epic Greek story it echoes, The Illiad, Helen carries a message of hope and most importantly redemption.   Helen on 86th Street runs now through May 8th.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Apparently, Ms. Vignola likes the horizontal formatting of my words, since most of this paragraph is essentially the copy I wrote and provided for her in the press packet.  Oh, except for it "echoing" the Illiad.  It's actually "echoes" the Odyssey, hence the 64 Odyssey references scattered throughout the piece.

As a musical, Helen on 86th Street is a little lackluster.  The script has plot holes that are only answered if you read the short story.  For example, why does a twelve-year old girl have matches so available to her in 2011?  I had a copy of the short story in my press packet, but I wonder if everyone else was in the loop.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Okay, she finds it a "little" lackluster.  She's entitled to find it a "little" lackluster.  A "little lackluster" doesn't  happen to be a phrase that I've heard escape from anyone's lips who has seen the development stages of Helen or the show, but okay.  At least is wasn't fully lackluster.

As for the matches.  Yes, there was a time when it was much clearer that Vita had a match collection bowl (from restaurants) on her dresser, but since on an Equity Showcase budget we couldn't afford a dresser or anything other than a bed, we had to put the bowl of matches under her bed.  And then it was really hard for Taylor (Vita) to strike the small matches that Jeena (our brilliant props person) had gathered from restaurants all over the city and put together in the "match collection bowl" so we preferred to keep the action of the show moving and Taylor safe by giving her kitchen matches so that she could light them easily as she sings a vocally difficult song.

The short story is 5 pages long and is written in the first-person from Vita's perspective.  There are no "plot holes" or parts of the story that have been left out from Wendi's story because I invented 75% of the story, the characters and plot in order for it to work on the stage. As for the remaining 25%, I toiled to make sure that I was as faithful as I could be to Wendi's story.

The score was average at best.  The songs reiterated the action but didn’t do much to further it.  It was hard to remember any of the tunes once the house lights came up.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  I don't know ANYONE (and I'm talking musical theatre glitterati) who would ever call Robby's music "average."  That is just not true.  And I'm not saying that because I'm his writing partner, I'm saying it because it is a fact that Robby is a brilliant composer who has a unique and innovative sound. 

Oh, and I don't even know how to write songs that don't move the action further.  Ask me to write a "torch song" for a musical and I'm at a loss.  I only know how to tell the story and move the action through songs.  I won't bore you all by going song by song and justifying how each piece either gives you crucial character information in order for you to invest in the characters and go on a journey with them or precisely moves the action forward in song as opposed to dialogue.  But, if I had to, I could...in a heartbeat.  So, that is just not true.  I will happily hand my script to a dramaturg and let them be the judge of that.

And, ironically, I spent all weekend listening to people who told me how they "couldn't get the songs out of the head" or "couldn't stop humming the music."

Kempskie pulled double duty as Director for this premiere as well.  I felt like she made good use of an odd space.  After all, she had a cast of nineteen to handle. Nonetheless, her staging became predictable at some point.  She relied too heavily on action going from left to right.  When she played with the vertical advantages of the theatre, she immediately caught my interest.  I wish Kempskie pursued this further.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Mental note for me--Somewhere between calling Robby in the ER, responding to 15 sets of parent's emails, coordinating a production team of 16, trying to find Maggie's bag with her brand-new Uggs that were swiped from the dressing room, doing multiple live radio interviews, taking out the theatre trash, changing the light bulbs, and buying toilet paper, YOU MUST "PURSUE" THE VERTICAL ADVANTAGES OF THE THEATRE. 

Right.

The strongest part of the show was fifteen of the cast members under the age of sixteen.  Frankly, these kids can act.  Every one of them made smart choices and were super interesting to watch. 

NICOLE RESPONDS:  I agree. 

And these fifteen cast members under the age of sixteen (most of them twelve) just naturally made smart choices that made them "super interesting" to watch on their own?  It wouldn't happen to have anything to do with the writing or the direction or the choreography or the music that they are almost always singing every time they stepped on stage (which is almost the entire show)? 

Just asking.

My favorite actress of the cast would have to be Aurielle Kaminski.  She played Vita’s nemesis – Helen McGuire.  Miss Kaminski has comedic timing far beyond her years.  While most kids her age play big on the stage, she found a way to play her role with mature subtlety.  Not only did she hit every joke, she found the jokes between the jokes.  I completely see Miss Kaminski giving SNL's Kristen Wiig a run for her money, once she’s old enough to drive of course.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Awesome.  Aurielle is fantastic, as is every child and adult in the cast. (And thanks, Trish, for singling out one tween girl in a cast of 13 tween girls and 3 women.  That's really going to do wonders for the morale in the lady's dressing room.)

People still watch SNL?

Believe it or not, I actually can take criticism.  I don't like it (who does?), but ask anyone in my cast, on my creative or production team if I have a problem taking criticism in order to make changes that will better the show.  I mean, I made extensive changes based on notes my old roommate Elijah gave me after our last reading, and made a staging change last week based on something one of the kid's dad's said.  I'm not one to turn up my nose at constructive criticism and feedback.

What I can't "take" is un- constructive criticism.  I'm sorry, but it perturbs me when a reviewer sees a brand new musical that is fraught with so many potential pitfalls, that has so many merits, and they choose focus on the fact that I staged the show (in a proscenium theatre) from left to right.

As Vita says in the show: "Not helpful."

My final question/comment/thought is:  Why is Broadway.com sending a critic who reviews downtown, often avant-garde, Off-Off Broadway theatre to review a mainstream family musical? 

As Vita and Ms. Dodd say in the show: "NOOOOOOOOO!"  "WHY???????????"

But, don't get upset, readers.  (Since I know that a lot of you out there are going to be even more incensed by the review than I was.)  We know it's good.  We know that it's moving people, and making them think, feel, laugh and cry.

And that's more than enough.