The 16 Best Theater Critics in Los Angeles
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?
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.