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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 27, 2003

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


Reality Trash, Chanticleer, Saigon, a Boy, and a Fool

Just when you think reality shows can't get any worse, you see a promo for something truly dreadful, like Meet My Folks.

Yes, it's another hideous date-for-the-camera show, meant to titillate and/or appal the viewing audience, only this time, not only do you get to make a complete bozo out of yourself on camera, you also get to involve your parents!

Of course, in a way it's almost fair. After all, they raised the kind of person who would put his love life on a reality show. Why shouldn't they get a chance to shame themselves in person?

What's next? The worst idea for a reality show ever, of course. Get Arrested pays each contestant $1,000 for each day they spend in jail -- up to ten days. But if they get sentenced to more than ten days (including any days spent in jail prior to sentencing), they get nothing.

Talk about fine-tuning the legal system.

The show has a staff lawyer who gives legal advice on the most common sentence for certain misdemeanors. And you get a different lawyer to defend you. But you also have to put in the days in jail. And if you are so unlucky as to be given a fine instead of a sentence, you pay out of your own pocket.

"This show does not make a mockery of the law," says a network spokesman. "It teaches respect for the law, because there really are penalties."

And it's not like you have a chance to get away with anything -- after all, when the show videotapes the crime, that will be available as evidence in your trial. You're going to get convicted.

What about the contestant who got a life sentence in California?

"It's not our fault," said a spokesman, "that one of our contestants was carrying a concealed weapon when he was arrested for vandalism, or that it was his third conviction. We warned everybody who tried out for the show about California's three-strikes law."

*

One of the problems with doing a weekly review column is that by the time my review comes out, it's often too late for folks in Greensboro to do anything about it.

What good is it for me to rave about Chanticleer's concert last Thursday? Or the week of Miss Saigon that just ended?

Maybe you have a cousin in another city who can catch the show later in the tour. Or maybe you enjoy the frustration of hearing about things you missed.

Or maybe I just want to brag about cool stuff I got to do because I'm married to a woman who actually plans ahead farther than two days (which is about my maximum) and buys advance tickets.

Chanticleer is a choir of twelve men who sing in exquisite harmonies ranging from bass all the way up to soprano.

Yep, soprano. About half the guys have trained their falsetto register to overcome most of the limitations of that range, so that they sing a strong, pure tone. It doesn't sound like a woman's voice -- it sounds like a man singing really, really high.

With exquisite arrangements of great music from the Renaissance to modern, from classical to pop, from spirituals to traditional Americana, they provide an evening of beauty.

Their harmonies usually require a tone of bell-like purity -- no vibrato, and no bombastic break-down-the-back-wall singing like Pavarotti. Yet the group is small enough that even in the midst of delicate, intricate harmonies, each voice is identifiable -- you know who is singing what.

They sing, not just with technique, but with heart. And even though the performance consists almost entirely of male singers standing around in tuxedos, they even manage to make it visually interesting.

As for Miss Saigon, it's a show in which I had never been particularly interested. Mostly because I dreaded (a) the political correctness that I assumed a show about Vietnam would have and (b) the fact that it was touted as an update of Madame Butterfly.

I always thought that Madame Butterly had just about the stupidest story I'd ever heard. Well, no, that would be American Pie. But still, a story I would be hard put to care about. Japanese woman falls in love with Englishman (or was it an American? Who cares), who sails away after promising to return and marry her. Well, he comes back only he's married someone of his own race. Generously he takes the Japanese woman's child home with him, whereupon she kills herself. Yeah, I can identify with all these people.

Oddly enough, however, Miss Saigon actually improves the story -- by a lot. Now it's an American soldier who tries as best he can to get his Vietnamese lover out of Saigon, but can't. The woman bears his son, deals with a cousin to whom she was betrothed, and then gets to Bangkok as a refugee, where the American is finally able to come to her. With his wife, of course. But everybody is trying to do the right thing, and when it turns out wrong they suffer for it, and ...

And it's a moving story now. Too bad that so much of it takes place in houses of prostitution, with fairly repulsive costumes. And too bad the writers didn't give us any reason to fall in love with the two leads ourselves, the way love stories are supposed to. If you just take it as a given that they love each other desperately, then the rest of the story works well.

As for the performances, I can only say that this is one of the best road companies I've seen. When you consider that this was a non-Equity show, and the actors, musicians, and crew tour for a solid year, it's amazing that they still manage to put everything they've got into every performance.

By the same composing team that created Les Miserables, Miss Saigon shares some of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of that show. Because the whole show is sung, it attains a kind of grandeur; but because there are relatively few songs, most of it is recitative, and we become perhaps a little too aware of the musical limitations of the composer. He seems to think that you can only have one chord per measure, as if he composed everything on a guitar and couldn't change chords more often than that.

However, the arrangement makes the most of what music there is, melding oriental sounds with Europop motifs and, in the end, the musicians and singers make it all work. The show is well worth seeing ... though when a heartfelt song pleads for people to do something about the mixed-race children that GIs left behind in Vietnam, you should keep in mind that the song is set in 1975. Today, the youngest of those children would be thirty.

*

I missed About a Boy when it was in theaters, but heard such good things about it that I couldn't wait to see it on DVD.

Everything I heard was true. The story is a simple one that manages to be surprising every step of the way.

The premise sounds like a miserable high-concept comedy. Hugh Grant plays a young man who does nothing -- he lives on the royalties of the one hit song his father composed, and has no purpose in life other than seeking pleasure. In order to meet available women, he pretends to have a son and joins a single-parent support group.

That set-up is precisely why I didn't see the show when it first came out.

But the movie is not what I expected. His "technique" doesn't work all that well, and he quite accidentally gets involved with a boy that he doesn't like, whose mother was not at all attractive to him (nor was he to her). The boy has serious problems and gloms on to Hugh Grant in the hope that he will save his family.

And he does -- but not at all as the formulas of romantic comedy normally handle such things.

Suffice it to say that this is one of Hugh Grant's best performances, and watching his character face honestly the kind of man he is, compared to the kind of man that is worth loving, is both painful and deeply satisfying. It's one of the best performances in Grant's career -- and the one that relies least on his bashful-boy shtick.

*

If you're a fantasy reader and aren't already deeply involved in Robin Hobb's masterful series, then go back to the Farseer trilogy (the ones with "Assassin" in the title) and the Liveship Traders trilogy and then pick up Fool's Errand and read it and then you'll be ready for her brilliant new book, Golden Fool.

Sounds like a lot of reading, doesn't it? All I can say is, it's worth every hour. As jaded as I am with speculative fiction, and as repelled as I am by formulaic tolkienesquery, it's hard to find a more hostile reader than I am for multi-volume fantasy "epics."

But Robin Hobb owes nothing to Tolkien, her stories are both personal and epic at once, her characters are well-drawn and you can't help but care about them, and her writing is rewarding at every level.

Nobody looks at genre fiction when they're handing out the big prestigious awards. But that's their loss. In a world where Cold Mountain and The Connections are treated as "serious" fiction, and the far more original, realistic, moving, and well-written fantasy novels of Robin Hobb are ignored as "escapism," you begin to realize that maybe us ordinary, unsophisticated readers are getting much better literature than the li-fi fans.

Shhhh. Don't tell them. They're perfectly happy feeling superior to the rest of us, and because they leave us alone down here in the genres, we get to do things our own way. And our own way -- at least when it's a writer like Hobb -- is as good as it gets.


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