Reviewing "Meet the Candidates"

I’ve been stuck in a rut a bit lately, column-wise. Looking back, my last few entries have been theater reviews – “The Sound of Music,” “Les Miserables,” “I Remember Mama.”

So when I trotted out to the Norwich PTSA’s Meet the Candidates night Wednesday, I sat in the Gibson auditorium waiting for the show to begin, my critic mind working overtime.

And I wasn’t disappointed. “Meet the Candidates” had everything I expected in an amateur production – comedy, drama, flubbed lines, prop malfunctions and plenty of bad acting.

As the moderator, Joseph McBride was in full District Attorney mode, directing the candidates on microphone usage and audience address as if they were witnesses on the stand. I give his performance an A-plus, but then again he’s pretty familiar with the role.

I have to say that I found the scripting and dialogue for “Meet the Candidates” a little stale. Not a debate in the true sense of the word, the evening’s format didn’t lend itself to much improvisation. While the stage manager gave the illusion of randomness by having candidates pull questions from a jar, it was clear each knew them all beforehand and had written out their answers carefully. Personally, I’d rather see how these candidates think on their feet, as they have to do at a real school board meeting. But I guess that’s not the way we do “debates” in America anymore. We haven’t had a great, unscripted moment in a national debate since, “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

That being said, you’d think the cast here would have done a better job in writing and rehearsing their lines. There was a lot of stumbling in “Meet the Candidates,” a lot of unnecessary posturing and mind-numbing repetition. If I’d heard the nebulous term “communication” being bandied about one more time, I would have thrown rotten tomatoes at the stage.

But on to the performances. Starring as they were in alphabetical order, the first up was Clyde Birch. Bankers have a certain way of speaking, succinctly and directly, and Birch has that down pat. With his prior experience on the board, he seems like a man of fairness and decision. Following him was Heather Collier, who used to star on the Norwich stage in a different role – as a building principal. Undoubtedly knowledgeable about education (the actual how-to), she seems an obvious choice if not for the fact that the format of the evening didn’t allow her to address the elephant in the room – whether or not she’s a “grudge” candidate. I’m going to leave that role open for now.

Mark Hollifield. What can I say about the candidate who has ... well, not very much? I wouldn’t vote for this guy for dog catcher.

Wait, I take that back. I know the real dog catcher, and he’s an honest, intelligent and capable man – and I won’t insult him with this comparison.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Horovitz in a political role on the Norwich stage. Candidate Linda’s dad Herb was a city alderman when I was but a wee cub reporter, and it’s nice to see her enter the fray. I was a little concerned that she seemed to cast the administration as the villains in the play at every opportunity, because that’s an all-too-easy road to take. Still, as an entrepreneur I think her no-nonsense approach would serve the district well.

Ditto for Bill Loomis, who before that evening I’d unfairly typecast in the role of athletic supporter. He’s got a lot more on the ball than just an interest in school sports; his answers showed the knowledge base and experience of a veteran school board member.

The elder statesman of the group, David Older imbued his role with humor, intelligence and gravitas. Of the entire cast, I’d say he’s the one who did the most homework. If you haven’t read his letter to the editor we published in Wednesday’s paper, you should. This guy’s a thinker.

I guess I could call Bob Patterson the diva of the production, he being the one with the most experience on the Tornado stage. But in his performance I saw no grandstanding or over-acting. I don’t envy his role in the “real” school board production – as current president, he’s had a pretty rough year. While it’s always a popular notion to toss the incumbents in times of duress, at this point, I’d think throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater isn’t a great idea. I’d like to see him play this part again.

With no understudy for the role, Tom Morrone’s chair was curiously empty. I was a little disappointed not to see what I was sure would be a breakout performance. I’ve known Tom for years, of course, but was still surprised to hear he’d thrown his hat in the ring. Still, I have to say that in my prior dealings with the local GOP chairman over the years, my BS meter has rarely gone off – and mine is well-trained. That’s not to say I’ve always agreed with everything he’s said, but he’s nothing if not a straight-shooter. He’s got my vote for sure.

As an editor, I have to make sure we remain unbiased in our front-page news coverage. As a voter (and column writer, here), there’s no such thing. With three seats open on the Norwich City Schools Board of Education in next Tuesday’s vote and eight candidates running, I knew going into it that I’d made up my mind on one yea and one definitely nay (see above), but I’d be open to seeing what the rest had to say.

I don’t get to many school board meetings any more, so I have to rely on the reports (both in print and, more entertainingly, off the record) of my trusty staff. When it comes time to cast a ballot, I like to make up my own mind, and appreciate that the PTSA gave residents the opportunity to see these people up close and personal. Too bad only about 50-ish community members took advantage, but these things never play to a packed house.

I’d also like to applaud all eight candidates – incumbents and newcomers – for stepping up to the plate to fill what truly is a thankless role. With a strong field of so many good candidates, I regret there are only three positions to fill next week (and regret even more that some current members will play out their same, tired roles again).

This is the point in my theater reviews in which I usually wind up endorsing a show wholeheartedly, and while you can’t see “Meet the Candidates” again, you can head to the polls next week and write your own review. I encourage you to do so.

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