You can champion blunt honesty all you want, but you'll never gauge the true thickness of your skin until you've been evaluated by Anthony Del Valle. Local entertainment figures — and theater students and newspaper editors (ahem) — past and present can attest to this. But his commentary always came from a place of concern and, more often than some would admit, compassion. If Tony laid into you, for whatever reason, it was because he cared.
Today, he has gone from the aisle chair he always preferred to that great balcony seat in the sky. The man known to thousands of Vegas newspaper readers as Anthony Del Valle — and as Tony D among his inner circle of friends and colleages — passed away early this morning. The longtime theater critic, who started covering plays and musicals locally at CityLife in 1997 until moving to the now-defunct Mercury and then the Review Journal in the mid-2000s, broke his back a few months ago and had struggled to fully recover. The native New Yorker's final column, about a show produced by the Rainbow Company Youth Theatre, ran on Feb. 22.
I've known some theaterphiles in my time, but none as passionate as Tony D. If you told him you hated musicals, he'd breathlessly make the case for them, and single out a few titles he knew would win you over. (For this showtune-adverse music critic, Tony suggested rock operas and bio shows on famous music figures.) And if you happened to love a certain musical that he didn't, he'd just as emphatically level the production — though making sure to constructively address its shortcomings. A play didn't just suck — it had a boring script, or suffered from overacting, or was poorly directed by someone who either knew better or showed his inexperience. (Or, it was written by Neil Simon, which was a good enough justification for me.) He was specific and thorough, and yet never mechanical. His remarks, positive or negative, pulsed with a heartbeat, and his extensive experience showed in his contextualization — editorial attributes that elevated him over his peers and, at one point, earned him a standing offer to cover theater for the Los Angeles Times.
Tony felt compelled to see and cover everything, and never regarded his time watching lackluster shows as wasted. On the contrary: The public deserved to know the artistic quality of a production before it plunked down cash for a ticket, be it a local play or a million-dollar casino extravaganza. (He even sent spies to productions directed by people who had banned him, reporting Deep Throat-style to ensure all ground was covered.) And the participants of said productions deserved an honest appraisal of their efforts. Tony never saw them as marks. They were members of what he hoped would eventually become a strong, diverse, ambitious and vital theater scene that one day would escape the shadow of the Strip and compare to those in bigger cities.
And when Tony saw glimpses of that potential, he glowed, both in print and in conversation. I'll never forget his nearly panting review for something as ridiculously titled as Poona the Fuckdog. Or how he raved about the talents of the kids from the Rainbow Company, which he often regarded as professional and talented as any adult-oriented local theater troupe. Or how he glowed when he said during a CityLife office visit that a performance of a 2002 touring version of Rent — a musical he'd always nitpicked despite his secret desire to like it — was "so good, I stood up during the curtain call — for the first time ever."
And in an era where e-mail was quickly becoming the dominant correspondence with regard to professional matters, Tony preferred those office visits and phone calls. He valued the potency and intimacy of human interaction onstage and off. He'd call me at CityLife or at home, whether to talk shop or, in one instance, extol the comedic virtues of Dude, Where's My Car? Which I welcomed. Upon taking over the CityLife arts and entertainment section in 1999, I was first congratulated by Tony, then quickly castigated for being too fresh out of college for management. That I eventually won his (hard-earned) trust meant something to me, for I had tremendous respect for his writing talents, stage pedigree and work ethic. And I knew he was ultimately making me a better editor.
I hope the many thespians of Las Vegas learned something from him about their work, too.