The 16 Best Theater Critics in Los Angeles

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Myron Meisel accepting his Excellence in Theatre Criticism Award at the final LA Weekly Awards in 2014.

Obviously this list is simply one man’s opinion. My opinion. But I will assert that it is an informed opinion, well informed. There is no one in this city who has read more theater reviews in the last eight years than me. And there is no one in this city who has written more about theater criticism in Los Angeles in the last eight years than me. Again, doesn’t make me an authority, it’s essentially a subjective exercise, but it certainly makes me somewhat of an expert on the subject. Let’s just call this list well-informed and leave it at that. 

So the next question is: Why?

Well mostly because people are suckers for lists, but more importantly, because presently, here in Los Angeles, circa 2016, there are AT LEAST 311 people writing theater reviews for Los Angeles Theater. And out of those 311 I’d say that AT LEAST 90% could be considered “credentialed legitimate press”. How do I make that assertion? Because that 90% is getting free tickets with the implicit understanding that they will be writing a review of that show in return for those free tickets. You, the producer of theater in Los Angeles, have legitimized them by doing so. A contract has been made, a pact has been formed between producing entity and theater critic. And that’s a big deal. If you want to know how big a deal I consider that pact to be, feel free to go here for a more detailed description.

But still, that’s a whole lot of people. How to discern between them?

This list.

That’s one reason, but not the main reason for publishing this list. Here’s another.

Many if not most of the people making theater in this town still think that a rave from the Tolucan Times or StageSceneLA or Life in LA or LA Splash is a reason for celebration. Now certainly, any time someone has something nice to say about your work, personally, that’s a lovely thing, but getting a rave from Serita Stevens is not the same thing as getting a rave from Bill Raden. And this is something that both audience and artist and reader needs to understand, clearly, and unequivocally if we are to take our work seriously in LA and have others outside of our community do the same.

Because here’s the thing; it’s no longer about the publication, it’s about the person. Certainly a rave from the LA Times still carries cache, but not as much as you’d think. At our last Hollywood Fringe Critic’s Panel, longtime publicist, Phillip Sokoloff stated publicly that he repped two shows last year that received Critic’s Choices from the LA Times and they did little to nothing for ticket sales.

No, it’s not about the publication anymore, it’s about the person doing the writing. Because – and this is another reason for singling out these 16 individuals – many of the critics these days write for multiple publications, some up to as many as three or four. So if you’re thinking: “What a great review I just received from Stage Raw!” Better to look closer and rave about the individual giving you that rave. If Bob Verini wrote it, for example, understand that he’s also writing for Variety and ArtsInLA. It’s a Verini review, that’s what makes it good.

It is the individual that is the brand now. I guarantee, as the larger more established outlets continue to crumble and erode, it will be the singular voice that rises to the top. It’s one of the central tenets of Bitter Lemons that we hold to so dearly: an open platform for the individual voice. By catering to that principle we’ve created a brand, not the other way around.

So another essential reason for publishing this list is to give you, the reader, a heads up about those particular individuals. Pay attention to them. Follow them. Read them. Listen to them. They’ll survive long after the publications die. At least we hope they do.

Now obviously, when you’re producing a show, you’re going to take what you get. For the producer it’s all about getting butts in seats and if that involves completely mis-representing a pan so that it sounds like a rave, so be it. And you know what? After the review has been published, it’s public domain and it is fair game as to how it’s used. That’s the biz. And it’s one of the reasons that the LemonMeter remains so valuable. Yes, it and I and Bitter Lemons must bear some responsibility for creating this monster of “democratization” by aggregating ALL the theater reviews and creating an easy to manage score for the theater consumer, because, yes, it puts the Tolucan Times and the LA Times on equal level and that can be confusing for people. I get it. I see the influence of the LemonMeter everywhere in SoCal Theater now, when Steven Stanley’s “Wows!” appear on the marquee at the Falcon Theatre or you see someone touting a rave from the Tolucan Times on Facebook as a reason to see their show, you realize in many ways that the shark has most definitely been jumped. It also says a lot about the producing entity or the individual that touts these lesser talents. But while we and I accept some responsibility for this “monster of mediocrity”, there is still room for those that raise the vocation of criticism to an art form.

And the individuals on this list do that.

They are elite, yes I said, elite, they are part of an exclusive club, yes I said exclusive, they are the highest quality writers out there and they should be given their due and the credit for truly adding something to the conversation. And that, ultimately, is the core reason for this list.

I want people in Los Angeles, artists, readers, audience, and everyone in-between to know who those individuals are and why they are the ones you should be reading and listening to and why you should perhaps be allowing their opinions to guide you to the best theater out there, as well as allowing them to sometimes sway you from seeing the crap that the other, lesser writers will always be telling you to see either because they are shills, glorified publicists or because they don’t know any better.

And guess what? Many of the people on this list you ain’t gonna find in the illustrious membership of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Why? Well, because membership in that club, while holding some lustre, is mostly about politics.

Ultimately you may not agree with the tastes of these writers, I certainly don’t, always, but attention must be paid, for the quality of their writing, the consistency of their thought, and the sheer courage of their convictions. Though they are in the business of criticizing, at their hearts they are lovers not fighters. Well, except for Jason Rohrer. But lovers all, lovers of theater, lovers of the ephemeral art, guardians at the gate. And so when they get angry, it’s important to understand it is the outrage of a betrayed paramour.

And finally, why 16, you ask? Well mostly because I couldn’t fit these individuals into a tidy top 10. Also, it’s 2016 and 16 seemed like a tidy number for the times. So I’m calling these folks, The Sexy Sixteen. I’m hoping they’ll pose for a Critics Calendar in the coming year. A swimsuit addition. Can you imagine the sales? Yeah, me neither. 

And so, without any further Freddy Adu (look him up) I give you the 16 Best Theater Critics in Los Angeles and the publications they write for, listed in a sort of descending order of my favorites, best first and going down from there. Take that with a grain of cocaine – er – salt, because all of these folks are all top of the tops, and they are under-paid and under-appreciated. Well, maybe except for Steven. And remember, these are the people who are currently writing on a regular basis, there a couple who have bailed on the vocation (Harvey Perr, MR Hunter, Trevor Thomas, boo on you!) who deserve to be on this list, but they have been excluded because, well, they don’t write anymore, or don’t write as much.

I’m also adding an honorable mention at the very end, as there are certainly another 15 to 20 or so who are very good writers and deserve to be mentioned and read, but simply didn’t make the elite cut in my most humble of opinions. 

But for these 16, mark their names down, seek them out, read their work. They are good for LA Theater and they deserve your readership and patronage.

Okay! Trumpet blast! Huzzah! Here we go!

The 16 Best Theater Critics in Los Angeles

Myron Meisel (Stage Raw)

Sylvie Drake (Cultural Weekly)

Tony Frankel (Stage and Cinema)

Bill Raden (Stage Raw, LA Weekly)

Jason Rohrer (Stage and Cinema, Bitter Lemons, American Theatre)

Joel Beers (OC Weekly, LA Weekly, Bitter Lemons)

Steven Leigh Morris (Stage Raw, LA Weekly, @ThisStage)

Ernest Kearney (The TVolution, Bitter Lemons)

Deborah Klugman (Stage Raw, LA Weekly)

Bob Verini (Stage Raw, Variety, Arts in LA)

Frances Baum Nicholson (Stage Struck Review, Pasadena Star News, Bitter Lemons)

Charles McNulty (LA Times)

Anthony Byrnes (KCRW)

Don Shirley (LA Observed)

F. Kathleen Foley (LA Times)

Terry Morgan (Stage Raw, Arts In LA, Talkin’ Broadway)

Honorable Mention: Julio Martinez, Les Spindle, Travis Michael Holder, Rob Stevens, Kevin P. Taft, Patrick Hurley, Jonathan Ross, Lyle Zimskind, Margaret Gray, Katie Buenneke, Jenny Lower, Neal Weaver, Jordan Riefe, Ellen Dostal, Daryl H. Miller, Philip Brandes, Tracey Paleo, Jonas Schwartz, Mark Hein. 

Comments (19)

U 52071 t 4170222

Being a heavy (hearted) reader of theatre reviews, I back this article 10,000 percent. About time somebody outed the sharper analysts of our pummeled art form. Thank you (again), Colin Mitchell​ and Bitter Lemons​. #lathtr

Default user

Thank you for this. I’ve considered writing something similar for a long time. Many years ago before the flood, I was a film critic. I doubt that I was a very good one, but I believe I knew instinctively that criticism to be useful had to express not only a glossy review of the events and plot of a film or play, but had to show some understanding of the work in question. It need not necessarily be a deep, intricate analysis, but it did need to show a sense of how the play or film functioned and succeeded or failed in its efforts to be what it set out to be. It could not be mere description and praise or condemnation. And it certainly could not read like a publicity release, filled with trivial ooohs and ahhhs. Early in my career as an actor, I first encountered that sort of review in Oklahoma City, where a sports writer was assigned to review a dinner theater play. We got a good review from him, one that pleased the management no end. But it was a silly excuse for criticism. The writer made sure to mention every actor in the cast, using their first names, as though it were a report by a high school journalist on his own school’s play. His analysis fell into the “the plot was good” and " the audience roared" end of the critical pool, and each actor, no matter how small the part or insignificant the character, received a single superlative adjective in all caps to show that no one had been overlooked. And of course, the dinner was described. I chalked that intensely shallow and uninforming exercise up to the natural amateurism of someone literally out of his league, working for a paper that had no particular interest in drama or analysis.

In the more recent of my 33 years in Los Angeles theater, I have become increasingly dismayed to see exactly this sort of “criticism” rearing its ugly head all over the LA theater scene. The loss of interest in theater by such notable journals as the LA Weekly, the old LA Reader, and even the Los Angeles Times, knocked a substantial hole in intelligent theater criticism in this metropolis. Into that hole, thanks in large part to the Internet, has poured a rush of young gerbils who clearly have little or no idea what real criticism looks like or should look like. Don’t get me wrong, I have been treated very well by many of these writers. But when I perform or direct or produce or write a play, I look forward most to intelligent, thoughtful, and deeply analytical responses to the work. I have no interest in Valentines. They do not help me grow as an artist. They do not attract intelligent and thoughtful audiences. They rarely exhibit any sense of the history or tradition of the theater. The best reviews often seem like mere thank-you cards to the theater for the free tickets. When a rare pan comes along, it is often muddled or completely devoid of explanation, other than simple excuses such as “I didn’t care much for so-and-so” or “the set wasn’t good,” with no reason or context or sense of expertise or experience to qualify those opinions. In acting workshops, I long-ago learned that some people, if given the opportunity, will offer an opinion even when they don’t have one. For much of what passes for drama criticism in Los Angeles today, with the exception of the bright minds and eloquent writers you have listed, I think the same dictum applies. I sometimes feel as though I’d rather have a bad review from a good writer or no review at all rather than high praise in something that looks like a seventh grade book report. I’m grateful for the kinds of writers who still deserve the praise you have expressed here, and I hope perhaps by studying them and other great critics, that some of these pretenders to the throne may benefit. Youth and inexperience are not crimes, of course. But a critic’s reach should exceed his grasp, just like anyone else’s. Here’s hoping your article will encourage some stretching so that the widening pool of Los Angeles reviewers can become a deeper pool as well.
Default user

Wow. L.A is so fucking stupid. Stage and Cinema? Seriously? Lmao. I guess it’s not L.A. really as much as it’s Bitter Grapefruits who makes this shit up. More examples why this site is just catty idiot fodder. Nobody reads it anyway i guess. Funny that some random Google search found this site. But really, don’t pretend you have cred, dude. Anybody can make shit up now and pretend they’re a legit site, as long as you tell people that. I’m laughing so hard right now. Stage and Cinema? Ok ok, they pay you, i get it. People, stop humoring this fucking idiots (if anyone is reading this, which they’re not except Colin and maybe Stage and Cinema (journalistic and romper room rejects)

U 35088 t 4659361

Thanks, Jim. And thank you, Dean, for continuing to be one of those avid readers and for proving mine and Jim’s opinion about the state of critical thought so vividly.

U 48170 t 5294524

Well, I’ll say thank you for not including me in the list of the bad examples you mention. Given that you define a critic as someone who accepts free tickets in exchange for the promise of a review, I’ll never fit your definition — free tickets go against the ethics instilled in me by my employer (I’ll negotiate to what I would pay on Goldstar, but I don’t do free). I do hope, however, that I am improving over time, although I recognize I only have experiential training, and no formal training in criticism (well, other than making technical comments regarding cybersecurity, my formal field of expertise)

U 46928 t 1865969

Dean’s right. Until I can take a picture as good as Bill Raden’s, I should really shut up.

Default user

If you are covering a Dodgers game, you don’t pay for a ticket. If you are covering a new ride opening at Disneyland, you don’t pay for a ticket.
So why in the world should you be required to buy a ticket to review a play? It’s free advertising for the theater. Comp a reviewer, a reviewer writes a review and who knows how many eyes see it? And, trust me, considering how many lousy plays I’ve endured in my time, not only should the theaters comp us ink-stained wretches, they probably should offer a complimentary handjob.

U 35088 t 4659361

Wait. You don’t get one of those, Joel? Come on up to the LA Basin, pal, where the tickets are free and so are the hand jobs. Figuratively speaking of course…

U 46928 t 1865969

I’m gonna stop sitting next to Ezra because he hasn’t given me any kind of job.

Default user

oh, and btw, they do offer us the best seats in the house. And I ALWAYS trade them with paying patrons who are sitting in the back. No, it’s not that I’m the Mother Teresa of theater reviewers, I just prefer to sit in the back row.

U 35088 t 4659361

But you are the MotherTheresa of theater reviewers. At least that’s how I describe you to interested clientele.

U 46928 t 1865969

I thought it was because he secretly baptizes dying theater patrons after giving them substandard medical care. Wait: sorry: that’s me.

U 48170 t 5294524

I’m going to toss in my 2c on why I think it is important for reviewers to pay something — and it is an argument Colin should know well because it came up in the discussions related to the Bitter Lemons Initiative.

First, some background. In my day job, I work for an FFRDC. That’s a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. We provide general engineering advice to the government — effectively, reviewing the technical merits of products and services. Our job is to make sure that the arm of government we support gets the right advice to ensure the mission is successful. We don’t build anything, we don’t compete for contracts, and most importantly, we cannot accept anything beyond nominal value from those we review in order to stay completely unbiased.

Theatre critics and reviews review shows from a theatre. The BLI exposes the worries of the community about theatres paying for reviews. How is a theatre giving a reviewer a free ticket, better seats, and special parking anything different? Reviewers and critics should be like Consumer Reports — obtaining the product the same as any other audience member. But, you’ll say, how can they afford to go to all the shows? Well, first, there are sites like Goldstar. But also, if they are a business, then buying tickets is a cost of doing business, and they build into their business model (or their employer does).

I"ve taken my FFRDC ethics to heart. Some PR folks view me as a critic, and offer me reviewer tickets. Sometimes, I even let them arrange them (if I’m worried about their not being on Goldstar). But when I do, I always pay at least half price — what I would have paid on Goldstar. It surprises a lot of theatres. But it is the right thing to do. I’m laying down my money when I see a show. Now I have a stake in the game. Do I get my money’s worth? Read what I think of a show to find out.

Default user

I have known two critics who paid full price for their tickets when attending shows that I represented. Both were broadcast critics who were presumably paid much better than their colleagues in print and online media. (One of them is now retired.) But they could afford to pay for their tickets and, recognizing the financial straits of most theatres, did so.
I am quoted in the article for citing two shows that did not receive a bump in ticket sales from a Times Critic’s Pick designation. While it’s demonstrable that this nod from the Times has less clout than it did five years ago, it’s still sought-after by the theatres with which I work. It’s also evident that when the Times reviewed more shows, their Critic’s Pick designation guaranteed sold-out houses. The decline in its influence is concurrent with the decrease in the amount of its theatre reviews.

U 35088 t 4659361

Thanks, Phil. That is a very valuable and poignant clarification.

Default user

Great list!! I’d buy the critics calendar swimsuit edition. fer sure x

U 48587 t 4824409

Ernest Kearney is a shitbag of a reviewer. Very hard to believe he is on this list. I have just lost all faith in the Lemon. Seriously, read that sorry sack of an “artist’s” reviews. He is a fucking joke and we only hope he succumbs to some freak illness that will leave him opinionless. He’s already got no spine, talent or dick.

Ahhhh. To be nearly 60 years old and mediocre. Mr. Kearney please eat shotgun shell and let me kick you in the stomach.

U 35088 t 4659361

While I’m always down for a differing opinion id appreciate you at least not making yourself look like a drunken sixth grader who thinks he’s on a Yelp site. If you’re gonna insult someone, Christian, at least make an attempt at something that looks intelligent.

U 47273 t 6114607

And Christian, not only don’t I like your plays, I did your mother too.


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