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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 23, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Channing, Millie, La Mancha, and New Jersey

I've been reading Carol Channing's memoire, Just Lucky I Guess, a charmingly disjointed, conversational, candid account of her life as an actress/singer/dancer.

She doesn't tell about her love affairs because she hasn't had any. When she snipes at somebody she doesn't name names unless she also has nice things to say. For somebody like me, for whom theatre is the highest art, it would be hard to imagine a more pleasurable read than this one.

It made me wish, though, that theatre weren't so ephemeral. I can see the finest film performances of Jimmy Stewart or Edward G. Robinson or Lauren Bacall just by dropping a disc into a DVD player. But I can never, never see a young Carol Channing in her breakthrough performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; I can only imagine her in Hello Dolly!, and then only by squinting hard to squeeze out my memories of Barbra Streisand's hopelessly wrong performance in the movie version.

For that matter, I wish I could have seen Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, or Lunt and Fontanne or Gertrude Lawrence in anything. I wish I could have seen a performance of Ethel Merman's that could explain how that irritating voice could ever have charmed an audience.

But the flip side of that is that I'm alive now, and new stars are being discovered now, and ... this past week I saw one.

Sutton Foster plays the title role in the new Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, and I can promise you that if you make it to New York while she's still in that role, you'll have done the equivalent of seeing Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady.

Well, maybe not exactly, because Millie is no My Fair Lady. The problem is the same one that's visible in the movie it's based on -- the story is shallow and brittle and never makes the transition from "charming" to "moving" that the great musicals make.

The fault, however, is not in the work of the current librettist, lyricist, and composer -- they were perfectly spendid. All the new numbers are good, the changes in the story are brilliant (you will love what they've done with the Chinese kidnappers), and the choreography and set design are brilliant.

The tap-dancing typists are delightful; the duet while dangling out the window of a skyscraper is vertiginous and charming. And what they do with the old Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy numbers "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" and "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" is miraculously funny.

The rest of the cast is wonderful, too. Especially hilarious are Marc Kudisch as Mr. Trevor Graydon and Ken Leung as Ching Ho, while Gavin Creel is an absolute charmer as Jimmy Smith.

But the show depends on, and belongs to, Sutton Foster. Tall, leggy, pretty, with a face at least as expressive and almost as big-mouthed as Julia Roberts, Foster does wonderful physical comedy, gives line readings with perfect pitch and timing, and yet never seems to break a sweat or beg for favor from the audience.

A lot of Broadway stars just can't make it on film because they don't know how to be small enough for the camera. But I think Foster can do it, because even when she's absolutely still her face remains alive in just the way the camera requires.

So yes, I think you'll eventually see her, whether you fork over a hundred bucks a ticket for the Broadway show or not.

But if you can get up to New York and get a ticket, it's worth it, I think, to be able to see the performance that made a star.

*

The other show we saw while in New York was the revival of Man of La Mancha.

I think this is one of the great musicals of all time, even though, like Les Miserables, it gets no respect from the "cool" people in theatre. I suppose when a story is inspirational and accessible even to the great unwashed (i.e., you and me), you just can't get any coolness points by letting such a musical into your heart.

But since I already know I'm not cool, and couldn't care less anyway, I freely admit that this story moves me, that "The Impossible Dream" and "Dulcinea" and "To Each His Dulcinea" are songs I sang to my children when they were little and trapped in the car with me where they couldn't get away.

When our older kids were young and we took them to Broadway for the first time, the show that won their hearts was the Raul Julia & Sheena Easton revival of Man of La Mancha. And since the actor we liked best in the overwritten but brilliantly performed Ragtime was Brian Stokes Mitchell, we couldn't very well pass up the chance to see his Don Quixote.

He was powerful -- he relaxed in the role the way Robert Shaw relaxed into his part in Jaws, never seeming to strain, always being right there with just the right note, just the right inflection. While he did not erase my memory of Raul Julia's passionate performance, or my glimpses of Richard Kiley in the role (the numbers he performed on television), he made me want to see every single thing he does for the rest of his career.

But, to my surprise, the real heart of this production is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

I've had ambivalent feelings about this actress for many years. I thought she was excellent in The Abyss, but apart from that she has had the misfortune of doing fine performances in second-rate movies.

It's almost impossible for an actor to rise above the level of the script -- no matter that the money and prestige go to director and actors, the fact remains that no show is ever better than the writing.

Though performances are often worse. For instance, the script of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had its non-awful moments, but somehow the only actor to get out of that one alive was Morgan Freeman. Christian Slater was eager but weak, Alan Rickman was way over the top (he thought he was a Batman villain, apparently), and Kevin Costner never woke up enough to know the character was English.

When the sidekick (Morgan Freeman) comes across as the only real hero, something's wrong with the movie. And although poor Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio did a heroic job of trying to turn her part into something, she simply wasn't given enough of a script to do it with.

She almost never is. Apparently the really good scripts are always offered to somebody else first. (God forbid it was Andie MacDowell. MacDowell is living proof that you don't actually have to have facial expressions to have a career in film.)

Back to the long-suffering Mastrantonio and her performance as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. The role of the bitter, cynical prostitute is a difficult one, both to sing and act. The singing was too much for Sheena Easton when we saw her in the role a decade ago -- her voice was exhausted, barely a whisper.

And it's so easy to misplay the part. You have to walk a fine line between being so angry that the audience sees no charm at all, and being so charming that the audience gets no sense of the character's pain. Aldonza has to be both dangerous and damaged, has to excite both our pity and our admiration.

I did not know how well this part could be played until I saw Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio perform it. In a show designed to feature Don Quixote, she didn't so much steal the show as reveal that Aldonza is, in fact, the heart of it.

Don Quixote gets to sing of the impossible dream, but Aldonza is the one who actually lives it, not out of madness, but as her ladder out of despair. And at the end, when Mastrantonio sang the reprises of "Impossible Dream" and "Dulcinea" as she tries to waken Don Quixote out of his sanity, she was the one who made this great story ring with truth.

And quite apart from her acting, there's her voice. Who knew she could sing like this? The role demands soaring soprano notes -- and a husky belting voice -- all in the same song, within a few notes. Mastrantonio has an incredible vocal instrument which she uses to perfection. I was in awe.

On 7 January, a new Broadway cast recording will be released. I hope that, unlike many cast albums, this one will capture what I heard on the stage. But if it doesn't, there's always my memory.

Mastrantonio is at the peak of her powers. Writers and composers of musicals should be clawing past each other to get to her first, so they can have a stab at writing the most moving, demanding female role they can think of, so she can do it during the ten or fifteen years ahead.

*

And while you're in New York, checking out these plays, you might stop in at a wonderful neighborhood restaurant called NoHo Star. The quirky oriental/California/whatever menu is full of surprises, but the best surprise is that everything they put on your table is delicious. It's near Astor Place, within walking distance of Blue Man Group, but even if you're not already in the neighborhood, it's worth the trip.

*

I have just discovered one of the great secrets of Hollywood.

When Rod Stewart was on Letterman last Tuesday, I muted the sound -- I can't stand to hear this man "sing" -- and as I watched his face, his mannerisms, his movement, I finally realized: Rod Stewart is absolutely Robin Williams in a fright wig.

This is the performance of Robin Williams's career. All these years, he's been carrying out an incredible deception. And yet until now no one has noticed that Williams and Stewart have never been in the same place. No one has ever seen them at the same time.

But we should have guessed it when we heard Williams "sing" in Popeye.

*

My thanks to the folks at McGrath's restaurant in Orem, Utah, for going the extra mile and being good to my family last week. Not only is their food excellent, they also have a heart.

*

Having just driven through New Jersey for the umpteenth time, I'm fed up. No other state gets away with this nonsense.

In case you haven't noticed, I-95 doesn't actually run continuously up the East Coast. It gets to Philadelphia and stops. Then it resumes on the other side of New Jersey.

Why? So New Jersey can take all the east coast traffic, funnel it through their luge-like, confusing, understaffed toll roads, and take five dollars from each vehicle -- more next year when the rates go up.

Now, I understand that when a freeway bears a lot of traffic that's just passing through, state legislators can easily become convinced that "we shouldn't have to pay to maintain a highway that is used mostly by out-of-staters."

What they seem to forget is that New Jersey citizens also drive to other states and use their highways.

Indeed, except perhaps for Arkansas, New Jersey is surely the state with the most citizens desperate to get beyond its borders.

But since New Jersey clearly hates everyone who drives through their state on the way to somewhere else, I propose that Congress federalize the New Jersey toll roads, tear down the toll booths, and seal off the exits.

You could only enter the system at the borders of the state, and cars with New Jersey plates would be forbidden to use the highways at all.

It would take about fifteen minutes for the New Jersey state legislature to realize that having a heavily trafficked interstate highway is the best thing that could happen to a state. All of a sudden we'd find that a non-toll I-95 was being connected up from Philadelphia to Trenton and on to New York City.

Meanwhile, though, if people in New Jersey wonder why their state is the butt of so many jokes, they should remember that for most of us, all we ever see of the state is their miserable toll roads.


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