What To Include In Your Review
The purpose of your review is to let the public know what high-schoolers are accomplishing in theatre and to let the cast and crew know how well they did. It needs to include:
the name of the play or musical,
the name of school producing it,
some background on the play/musical,
a brief set-up of the plot, and
an evaluative description of the performances and non-performing elements you saw in
the show, including examples of what went well and mentions of what did not.
Your own theatre experience, the information in the Theatre Evaluation Guide, and what you learn in Critic discussions will help you show your readers how the several aspects of the production contributed to its level of success.
Presenting It To Your Readers
How you present the above information will affect whether your readers continue to read past your opening line and how much respect they have for your opinions. It will also determine whether the Mentors select your review for publication. Specifically, the Mentors will look for how well you:
Criticize Appropriately. Give honest descriptions of what happened on stage, proportionate praise and criticism within the range of fair comment, and solid analysis of theatre.
Give Accurate Praise. Reflect the overall Critic opinion of a Cappies show, and various aspects of that show, as expressed during discussions.
Engage Your Readers. Write with an engaging and creative style, and make your review of interest to readers who did, and those who did not, see the Cappies show.
Spell Names Correctly, Etc. Correctly spell all cast, crew, character, and other names, and use correct grammar and punctuation.
Samples and Instruction
Here are two sample reviews (by Critics who accomplished the above so well that they were published) and instructions to guide you in writing your own reviews.
Sample Review of a Play: A Piece of My Heart
The horrors of Vietnam are quickly fading into history. Young people today have no vivid memories of lost loved ones, and it is difficult to imagine America at a time of such crisis. But the atrocity of war came to chilling life on the stage at St. Ursula Academy's recent production of A Piece of My Heart by Shirley Lauro.
The play chronicled the experiences of six women who each went into the war zone for different reasons and came out with memories that haunted them long after coming home. Dealing with the pain, confusion and even the love that was part of "the 'Nam" could be very difficult to handle, but the performers created characters that pulled the audience into their lives.
Sissy (Rebecca Whatley) is a sweet girl, innocent of the horrors she will face when she stepped off the plane and signs up for field hospital duty. With a simple, traumatized glance, Whatley revealed the agony Sissy felt as she nursed mutilated soldiers. Whatley's performance contained the power and raw emotion of a woman who discovers what war is really like.
Whitney (Allison Aiken) is a highly educated boarding school teacher who goes into Vietnam to work for the Red Cross and to find a little adventure. Aiken's portrayal of the sarcastic, bitter Whitney was brilliantly executed. With a simple toss of the head or sip of liquor, there was no doubt of the true feelings of the character.
The show was comprised of monologues that flowed into dialogue with other characters and into the action during the war. The characters that entered the lives of the featured woman were portrayed by an ensemble which found specific actions and tones to differentiate between the numerous roles they conveyed. The energy of the entire cast charged the tension of the flashbacks and the frantic confusion of a hospital overwhelmed with victims of war.
The set was simple and was used to illustrate the simple power of the stories being told by the characters. All props (accumulated by Claudia Feldhaus) and costumes (designed by Maria Reupert) were accurate to the time period and provided the perfect accompaniment to the stories being told.
The experiences of the women in Vietnam may be far removed from the lives of the performers in this play, but each actor created characters that seemed to speak from these traumatic experiences. As the lights faded, the ensemble stared up at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, a powerful testament to the courage and strength of the women who gave everything for their country.
This review was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Written by Matt Borths
St. Xavier High School
Cappies of Greater Cincinnati
Sample Review of a Musical: The Music Man
Smiling faces, colorful costumes, beautiful voices singing in perfect harmony, a vibrant orchestra and marching band. … Does this sound like a great Fourth of July celebration? Well, not quite! It's Northwood High School's production of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man.
This classic American musical is the story of the small and "stubborn" town of River City, Iowa in 1912 and its extraordinary visitor, Harold Hill, a man of many identities. Harold comes to the town to con the townspeople out of their money with his phony "boy's band." In the process, Harold finds himself falling in love with the town's uptight librarian, Marian Paroo, and River City itself.
Some very talented students brought this show's variety of lovable characters to life. Memorable performances included Tyler Alessi, who brought an endearing charm to Harold Hill's tricky character, and the comedic duo of Grant Scavello and Natalie Larriva as Mayor and Mrs. Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Erika Nafius as Mrs. Paroo showed a consistently impressive Irish accent, while Kiersten Regele's dance skills and smiling face added to the innocence of the Zaneeta Shinn character.
Another bright spot was the Barbershop Quartet, including Northwood students Robert Webb, Christopher Figueroa, Charley Cullen, and Eric Weigan (guest artist). Last but not least, Andrea Borden brought energy and charisma to Hill's love interest, librarian Marian Paroo.
The cast as a whole was focused and lively, while The River City Teens tackled amusing choreography with an air of excitement. The Residents of River City humorously captured the small town's "chip on the shoulder" attitude. The energy of the cast started low but built to the climactic closing number, "Seventy-Six Trombones" in which the entire Northwood Marching Band and Drill Team consumed the auditorium, almost overtaking the cast.
Northwood's student orchestra did a praiseworthy job with the show's difficult numbers, while the school's student-run sound and stage crew provided impressive support. Fun and creative crossovers ably covered lengthy scene changes. Cast members who did not wear body microphones were occasionally difficult to hear during solos, but the majority of the cast did a great job of projecting the lapses. A few backstage set changes disrupted quiet moments, but most of the scene shifts went quickly and without error.
Northwood High School's production of The Music Man was a fun, feel-good experience that captured the heart of small town America.
This review was published in the Orange County Register.
Written by Nicole Weber
Huntington Beach Academy of Performing Arts
Orange County (California) Cappies
While a core purpose of the Cappies is to promote and celebrate high-school theatre, the critical reviews must have integrity, fairness, and accuracy. Most shows have aspects that could have been better – and, therefore, most reviews should include some criticisms. However, when making criticisms, remember that you are not evaluating experienced professionals, but students who are learning about theatre arts. This may be the first time they have ever been in a reviewed show. The following methods will help you give an honest description of what happened on stage while protecting the feelings of the students involved with the show.
Critique the Work Of High-School Students Only
Cappies is a program for high-school students, so only work by high-school students may be criticized (or praised). If the show includes performers younger than high-school age, they are to be praised or not mentioned. Adult participants are not to be praised or criticized. Neither is the script (unless student-written) up for evaluation, just the production of it.
Only Mention Names for Praise
When giving praise, you may refer to students by their name or their character name. However, when making a criticism, no individual student may be referred to by their name, character name, or role. Instead, if a singer was off-key, for instance, you may say,
"Some singers were off-key."
Or, if you criticize the sound in the review, don't mention the name of the sound person anywhere in the review. This is so the cast and crew can benefit from your honest and informed opinion without being embarrassed.
Include Observations On A Variety of Elements
Share your observations about both the performing and the tech elements of the show, and about the leads and the supporting cast. Also, remember all four of the evaluation factors – difficulty, range, originality, and presentation – and describe events for your readers using this perspective. For instance, it's a lot harder to do sound for a full-scale musical than for a black-box play, and your words of praise or criticism should reflect this.
Describe the Behavior
Avoid words that declare themselves to be praise (commendable, praiseworthy) or criticism (unfortunate, detracted, marred, and plagued). Instead, just describe what you saw. For instance, "The production was unfortunately marred by several microphone problems," grinds in a valid criticism too much. It's enough to say,
"At times, the microphones didn't work".
In addition, don't guess at what caused the problem; just remark on what you actually saw. For instance, saying, "A few characters could have used more time to learn their dances correctly," addresses the rehearsal process as opposed to what happened on stage. Instead, the observation could be made that
"A few characters did not execute their dances properly."
Balance It with Praise
Whenever possible, combine your criticism with a favorable remark such as,
"Although there were lines lost from actors speaking too quickly or the orchestra overpowering them, the performers kept their energy constant and strong."
Criticize By Omission
At times, the most appropriate way to state a criticism is to say nothing at all. For instance, if you say nothing about the lead performers but broadly praise supporting characters or ensemble members, that will make your point. Or it could be that all you say about the lead actor is that she/he showed tremendous poise, and then, later in the review, you say that some performers in the show fell out of character.
Position Criticisms near the End
Place criticism near the end of your review, after many positive observations – but not in the last paragraph where it would be emphasized. It also helps to put it near the end of a paragraph, but not in the last clause.
Giving Accurate Praise
Differentiate Levels of Success
Only write rave reviews for rave-worthy shows (as determined by Critic consensus in the Cappies room). Reviews for shows of different calibers should reflect those differences. Between an outstanding show and a disappointing one, the gradations may seem difficult to express. Below are some examples to help you.
Corresponding paragraphs are given from reviews for four fictitious productions of South Pacific: a weak show that would score a 2 or 3, a so-so show that would score a 4 or 5, a pretty good show that would score a 6 or 7, and an outstanding show that would score an 8 or 9. Compare the slightly varying treatment of the same show elements to get an idea of how to reflect the varying levels of success of shows you review.
The following lead-in paragraph is for the production that earned a score of 2 or 3.
"Use a paradise location to describe the most un-paradisiacal of situations, and you've got South Pacific, an epic tale of love, prejudice, and palm trees performed last weekend by Little Valley High School. This Rodgers & Hammerstein musical won nine Tonys in 1950, and ran for over 2000 performances on Broadway before hitting the screen in 1958."
For the better shows, the word "performed" was followed by "solidly" (4 or 5), "with aplomb" (6 or 7), or "brilliantly" (8 or 9).
Remark on Individual Actors
The excerpts in this section are in order from describing the weakest performance (2 or 3) to the strongest (8 or 9).
"As Bloody Mary, Jane Thomas brought an eye-opening, tongue-in-cheek charm to the production. On songs like "Happy Talk," where she playfully mocked the lovers Cable and Liat, Thomas displayed enthusiasm and energy for the role."
"With both cheekiness and tongue-in-cheek, Jane Thomas brought charm to the role of Bloody Mary. On songs like "Happy Talk," Thomas playfully mocked the lovers Cable and Liat without losing the grace or humor of her character."
"With a mix of playful mock and big-boned jolliness, Jane Thomas crafted a full-fledged comic foil as Bloody Mary, evident in songs like the anthem-like 'Bloody Mary' and the ticklish 'Happy Talk.'"
"With a mix of playful mock and big-boned jolliness, Jane Thomas provided a full-fledged comic foil as Bloody Mary, with entrances that made the audience roar."
Describe the Acting in General
In the following paragraphs, you can see how praise and criticism are combined for each of the different levels of performance.
2 or 3: "The big-boned Seabee Luther Billis was nicely played by the comically-adroit Matt Baker. Though other ensemble numbers lacked crispness and energy, Baker, along with his ruffian crew of sailors, used a grab-bag of swaggering, womanizing antics to make "There's Nothing Like a Dame" an audience favorite. In his amusing solo performance on the cross-dressing "Honey Bun," Baker demonstrated his jiggling coconut bra. Articulation was a problem in many scenes, and a number of songs had pitch errors, but the performers did nicely to stay in character."
4 or 5: "The big-boned Seabee Luther Billis was enjoyably played by the comically-adroit Matt Baker. Though other numbers seemed to lack impact, Baker, along with his ruffian crew of sailors, used a grab-bag of swaggering, womanizing antics to make "There's Nothing Like a Dame" an audience favorite. Baker's solo performance on the cross-dressing "Honey Bun" was very amusing, as he demonstrated his mastery of a jiggling coconut bra. Articulation was a problem from time to time, and some vocalists strained to hit notes, but the performers always kept their characters clearly in focus."
6 or 7: "The commitment and energy of the entire 41-person ensemble carried this production. The energy on big dance numbers like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" more than make up for any other injustice. Swaggering sailor tunes like "There's Nothing Like a Dame" had a chipper air that seemed to come at least as much from the chumminess of the cast members as from Rodgers' libretto. While a few lines were hard to hear, the vocalists did fine work with some difficult music, and did very well in keeping their songs tightly in character."
8 or 9: "Matt Baker's Luther Billis and his ruffian crew of Seabees added their own puckish twist to the script's comic relief. "There's Nothing Like a Dame" has a bombastic chipper to it seemingly unwritten in the script; while Baker's solo performance on "Honey Bun" drew huge laughs with his stunning mastery of a jiggling coconut bra. Throughout the cast, line articulation was outstanding, and vocalists showed superb range and styling with very difficult music. Every song conveyed exactly the attitude required for the character and story."
Reflect on the Technical Elements
Here, the technical elements of the different productions are explored.
2 or 3: "Jill Benning's sets reflected the story's tropical atmosphere, with basic backdrops and suggestions of green flora around the stage frame. Martha Cunningham's costumes were simple but effective, using a mix of sailor suits, military uniforms, and traditional Asian frocks. Many scene changes were heavily drawn out, even when little amelioration was made to the set. Muffled and faulty microphones challenged the production throughout, but the cast and crew admirably trekked on through every difficulty."
4 or 5: "Jill Benning's sets, with cool blue backdrops and luscious green flora, nicely captured the show's tropical atmosphere – as did Martha Cunningham's costumes, a mix of sailor suits, military uniforms, and traditional Asian frocks. At times, major scene changes were heavily drawn out. Microphones were occasionally muffled, but the cast and crew never lost focus and adjusted well."
6 or7: "Jill Benning's sets, with their use of cool blue backdrops and luscious green flora, effectively captured the show's tropical atmosphere – as did Martha Cunningham's inventive costumes, a simple but effective mix of sailor suits, military uniforms, and traditional Asian frocks. Most scene changes were swiftly made. For a show with this many vocalists using mics, the sound was quite good. Even when small microphone problems arose, the cast and crew adjusted very skillfully and could be heard clearly."
8 or 9: "Justin Bonner's stage crew kept the show running smoothly at all times. The sound was nearly flawless – no small feat for a show with this many vocalists using microphones. Among the many other superb technical aspects were Jill Benning's sets, with their use of cool blue backdrops and luscious green flora to capture the show's tropical atmosphere, and Martha Cunningham's costumes, a simple but effective mix of sailor suits, military uniforms, and traditional Asian frocks."
Sum It Up
Following are the closing paragraphs from the four reviews.
2 or 3: "Clocking in at three hours, South Pacific is truly a difficult production for a high school to tackle, but Little Valley took to the task admirably."
4 or 5: "Clocking in at three hours, South Pacific is a challenging production for a high school to tackle, but Little Valley gave it a good effort, in a show well-received by the audience."
6 or 7: "Clocking in at three hours, South Pacific is truly a difficult production for a high school to tackle, but Little Valley turned in a very fine show."
8 or 9: "For an exciting production with near-professional polish, Little Valley deserves many rounds of applause, as this "enchanted evening" proved nothing short of spectacular."
Engaging Your Readers
Before you begin writing, have in mind what you want to say. Take notes during the show to help you remember elements which stood out as you watched. Write a catchy phrase or two right after the show to sum up your impression of the production while it's fresh in your mind. Use these to help you decide what to put in your review. For instance, which performances or performers do you want to mention? Which technical elements do you want to highlight?
Then, think about your readers. How will they best be able to understand and enjoy what you have to say? The following practices will help you create a well-written and interesting review that will grab your readers' attention and keep them absorbed in what you have to say all the way to the end.
Arrange Your Thoughts
Arrange your thoughts so your readers can easily follow along as you move from discussing one element of the show to another. Here's one way to do this; it's called the seven-paragraph plan. Each of seven paragraphs is dedicated, as follows, to one purpose, and together they offer a logical flow of information.
Paragraph 1: The Lead-In. Grab your readers' attention.
Paragraph 2: The Story. Help your readers relate to the play or musical you are reviewing. If you haven't already, tell them the name of the play/musical (and the name of the performing school). Keep in mind that some of your readers will be familiar with this show and others will not. Interest both types of readers with a brief plot set-up and some interesting background on the show. For instance:
When was it written and by whom?
Where and when does the story take place?
Is the story well-known or lesser so?
Is there something noteworthy in its performance history?
Does its theme address important issues today?
Note: When using information you have found on the plot or background of a show, remember to put it in your own words for your review (so as not to commit plagiarism).
Paragraph 3: The Production Overall. Make some broad observations about the show as a whole. What production element anchored the show? An inventive or unusual concept? The cast's energy? The choreography? Technical elements or effects? A specific actor or ensemble? Write two or three sentences about this, but only if you considered the show to be a success. For instance,
"Quentin Tarantino High school's production was anchored by the exceptional talent and versatility of the ensemble. Every member of the 38-person cast helped convey the riveting truth behind the intricate script, making each of the characters clear-cut, complex, and captivating."
If the show fell short in key areas, describe it without praising it much. If there were major problems, don't put them here. Instead, include them further down, or merge them with another paragraph.
Paragraph 4: The Lead Actors. Describe highlights of what the lead actors did well. Put any criticisms of their work later in the review, where you can state it in an indirect manner. If you think their work was particularly weak, don't mention them at all – and talk about other actors here instead.
Paragraph 5: The Supporting Cast. Describe highlights from featured actors, stand-out vocalists or dancers, ensembles, etc. In addition, criticisms about all aspects of performance – including the leads – are appropriate here. Do not hesitate to criticize performers, when warranted, but justify all criticisms with specific and persuasive examples.
Paragraph 6: The Technical Aspects. Sets. Costumes. Lights. Sound. Props. Effects. Stage Crew. Makeup. Pick two or three technical elements which were most integral to the level of success of the production. Describe their major facets (for example, what costumes were most notable), and explain how they were successful (or problematic).
Paragraph 7: The Closer. Sum it all up.
Follow A Theme
Start by writing an up-beat, one-sentence description of the show overall. Think of it as the last sentence of your review (your closer). It may, for instance, commend the performing school on successfully tackling a particularly emotional script, or use references from the show to create a pun. Try to create a punchy ending, or tagline, your readers will remember. Have fun with it – and your readers are likely to also.
Next, write a strong, interesting opening sentence (your lead-in) that will command your readers' attention and set them up for a review that will culminate in that last sentence you just wrote. Two ways to go about this are with a zinger or a dramatic description.
The zinger is a catchy, one-sentence grabber that plays off the production or content of the script. This type of lead has lots of room for creativity; however, it must be extremely clear and
extremely concise; keep it to one sentence. Here's an example:
"Nikki's parents ran away, Luis's hooked on cocaine, Jackie's a child prostitute – and you thought your neighborhood had issues! Last weekend, Pauly Shore High School paid tribute to the abandoned children of America's ghettos in their production of Runaways."
If a show has a captivating opening moment, or one that is perhaps definitive of the play/musical (for instance, the ballet fight-dancing which opens West Side Story), the dramatic description works well, particularly for shows with a serious theme. An example follows. Before moving on, fill out the first and last paragraphs. (See the above examples.). Try to make these paragraphs no longer than three long sentences or four short ones.
"A procession of silhouetted actors filed listlessly through the auditorium, as projectors and television screens displayed slide after slide of familiar images – protesters, candlelight vigils, men in orange jumpsuits, and the voices of newscasters repeating the name "Matthew Shepard." So began Harold & Kumar High School's recent production of The Laramie Project …"
Writing the beginning and the end first, and then filling in the middle, helps focus your thinking so you end up with a cohesive review.
Show, don't tell, your readers how the production reached its level of success. Give examples of what you saw and heard to make your point. For instance, instead of saying, "He gave an energetic performance," describe his specific movements – perhaps like this:
"He bounced about the stage as if he had springs under his feet."
If you use the audience to reflect how well the performers did, don't say how the audience felt; just say what they did. For instance, "The audience roared with laughter." In addition, don't put yourself in the review (I, we, this critic). Only describe what happened on stage.
Create Mental Images
Make your review interesting for readers who saw – or didn't see – the show. Describe in rich detail the colors and textures on stage. Put images in their mind's eye – again or for the first time. Consider the different pictures created in your mind between reading, "The costumes were whimsical," and reading,
"Some of the characters wore khaki shorts with brightly striped suspenders, accompanied by orange, argyle knee-highs and propeller beanies."
Help your readers see what you saw. Make them feel like they were at the show (or bring a special moment back to mind) by using vivid nouns and strong verbs (ahead of adjectives and adverbs) as you describe what happened.
Use Flavorful Words
Keep It Fresh. Use a variety of words in your review to keep each sentence fresh, and therefore interesting, for your reader. For instance, instead of repeatedly using the word "walked" to describe how each actor moved, use a variety of synonyms such as
sauntered, strolled, traipsed, trooped, stepped, or hoofed it.
Use a thesaurus to find words other than those that first come to mind, but make sure they mean exactly what you intend to say – and that you understand how to use them correctly.
Say What You Do Mean. Choose the words that most fully say what you mean. For instance, instead of using the tentative, double-negative phrase, "it did not disappoint," say that
Make It Lively. Keep to a minimum your use of linking verbs (is, are, was, were), especially when used with flavorless nouns (there, that, this, it). Instead, restructure the sentence to describe an action using a lively verb. For instance, instead of "There were balloons everywhere," say
"Balloons hung everywhere."
Be Clear and Concise
Keep your sentences clear (versus convoluted) by putting subjects close enough to the main verbs that your readers don't get lost mid-sentence. Use punctuation smartly, to help make your prose more readable. For instance, limit your use of colons and semi-colons. They slow readers down. In addition, limit each of your paragraphs to about four sentences. Alternate between short and long sentences, and use varying sentence structures, to create flow.
"Boil down" your writing to eliminate redundancy, "throat clearing," and other fluff. Look at each sentence, and see if you can cut it by a third or a half and still say the same thing, in more concentrated prose. Do that through a whole piece that you've written, and you'll be surprised how much sharper it will read.
Spelling Names Correctly, Etc.
Proofreading Your Work
After you've written your review, proofread it. Proofread for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (Your word-processing program may have a tool to help you. Remember, however, that the computer can't do it all; for instance, it won't flag "there" where you mean "their".) Also, re-check the show program to make sure you have the right name and spelling for the play or musical, the performing school, the characters, and the cast and crew. People like to have their names spelled correctly. Doing so shows your attentiveness to detail, which adds to your credibility as a Critic.
Lastly, proofread to make sure that you are happy with the review you are sending in. It's your work and you should feel proud of it. It's all right to have a friend or family member look over your review and give you feedback on, for instance, your spelling or how well you have made your points. Just remember, though, it's your review, and all of the opinions and words are to be yours alone. Following is a checklist to help you edit your own review, making sure you have engaged your readers, criticized appropriately, and given fair and accurate praise.
The best reviews are usually about 400 to 550 500 words long. (Your word-processing program most likely has a word-counting tool that can quickly count the words for you.) Reviews that are close to 600 words will may be accepted, but are unlikely to be selected for publication. Reviews that are close to 300 words are unlikely to be selected and reviews of fewer than 300 words may not count as a submitted review.
1. Does the entire review sound good when you read it aloud? Are all points clearly and simply made (vs. awkward or long-winded)? Is it as concise and sharp as it could be?
2. Is there an attention-grabbing opening?
3. Are the basic plot and some background of the play/musical given?
4. Does the review include comments on: the notable acting (leads and others); the technical aspects (accounting especially for difficulty level); and, perhaps, an overall element that anchored the show?
5. Is each opinion illustrated with a representative behavior (an example; nouns and verbs)?
6. Are all criticisms general (no names), brief, and followed by something positive?
7. Could someone who didn't see the show picture what you saw as you describe (with nouns and verbs) what happened on stage by the actors and technical crew?
8. Are a variety of words used (vs. redundancies)? Are any double-negatives that crept in changed instead to what did happen (vs. what did not not-happen)?
9. Does the review end with a sound-bite or tag-line type, catchy closing? Does the body of the review lead, logically, to the closing remark?
10. Does it sound like the production was as successful as (and not more than) the Critics as a whole said in the Cappies room?