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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 17, 2004

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


Taxi, Hogwarts Philosophy, Little Women, and Fredericksburg

I read some reviews of Taxi, and I'm not going to argue with them. The premise was worth one joke -- a minor character, the cop who is such a bad driver that he loses his license and has to take a cab to the crime scene.

Supposedly he's a good cop except for that -- only we keep seeing him do idiotic things. And he isn't a bad driver the way real bad drivers are bad. He's deliberately bad. He's bad for the laugh.

And it strains credulity that of all the cabs in Manhattan, the one he happens to pick is an illegally souped-up, turbo-charged Crown Vic that 007 would be proud to drive. Or that the cabby is a woman who has NASCAR dreams and treats the streets of Manhattan like Daytona.

Every plot line depends on nobody ever, ever listening to anybody else, even when they are desperately searching for information that the person they're refusing to listen to has just told them he has.

But here's the thing: Minute by minute, the movie is funny. I laughed out loud. I enjoyed myself the whole time. And so did my wife. And it seemed that everyone else in the theater did, too.

And do you know why this film is enjoyable despite the deep dumbness of the storyline?

Mostly because Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon are so completely natural and likeable on screen that I would watch them reading the nutritional information from the back of snack food packaging. They would make it funny and ironic and real, and would develop an onscreen relationship between the Fritos and the Twinkies.

Let's get them back together to do a remake of 48 Hours. I don't think it matters which one of them plays the Nick Nolte part and which one of them plays the Eddie Murphy part. Heck, film it twice and let them switch parts.

And let's give credit where it's due: Even though the plot is dumb, the writing was not awful. Dialogue is often clever and the individual comic episodes are hilarious. Plus the action sequences work.

Henry Simmons (NYPD Blue) as Queen Latifah's boyfriend and Ann-Margret as Jimmy Fallon's drunken mother are also very good.

It's not Oscar material. But in these doldrum months between the summer blockbusters and the holiday prestige films, it was worth going to the movies to see.

My only woe: I heard once that Queen Latifah was looking for a movie role where she got to ride a motorcycle and get shot at. This one came so close to that -- a bicycle instead of a motorcycle -- that I guess I'll have to throw away the screenplay I was writing for her.

*

Got a high school or college kid who loves Harry Potter and would like to get an intro to philosophy? Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts is playful but serious about philosophy, and if you skip the tedious introduction, which is clearly intended for an educated audience, and just read from essay to essay, you can get a good taste of how you examine literature, not to find encoded messages or clever symbols the way the English professors do, but to explore the moral questions and issues the way serious story-lovers do.

*

Little Women is one of the great novels in American literature, for reasons that your average English Department is woefully underequipped to explain. But the readers know, and without anybody requiring it in high school or college, it gets passed parent to child and friend to friend across the generations. That, my friends, is how great literature is found, not by reading reviews by contemporary blowhards (like me).

Whenever a novel is so beloved, people naturally want to make it into movies and plays and musicals. There've been several attempts at movies -- one with Katharine Hepburn, one with June Allyson, and the most recent (and best) with Winona Ryder as Jo. Not to mention a whole slew of TV movies.

And even before movies and TV, there were plays. I've been in some of those productions, and you know what? The scripts all stink.

That's because Little Women does not compress easily into a single storyline that can be completed in three acts. The heroine ends up marrying a guy we don't even meet until most of the important action of the story is over.

Another complication is time. The story takes place across many years. The youngest girl, Amy, is little at the beginning, but mature enough to marry a favorite character at the end.

But mostly the scripts stink because the writers don't get it. They don't understand that everything, absolutely everything in the story depends on us loving the four sisters together. They always cut back drastically on sister time in order to show us the relationships with men and with Marmee (i.e., their mother).

So by the time the girls start marrying off or traveling or dying, you have no idea why Jo is so upset (except of course for the death). For the story to work, the audience needs to grieve along with her because we love these four together -- and we never do.

The new musical version of Little Women that is playing through October 31st at the R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater in Bryan Center at Duke is the latest attempt to stage the story, and it's not as if the producers didn't try to do it right.

The sets are gorgeous and cleverly designed. The costumes are lovely. The director knows her business and uses the stage space to wonderful effect.

And the cast! Starting with Sutton Foster as Jo, they have put excellent performers in every role. We had already seen Foster on Broadway where she originated the title role in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie to well-deserved rave reviews. In this production she proves she has range. She's believable, funny, warm (a lot more so than Winona Rider), and so inventive that you could watch only her and have a wonderful show.

Not only can the actors all act, but they can sing, using the powerful contemporary style of Broadway voice that has settled somewhere between Beverly Sills and Ethel Merman. Lots of power, lots of brass, lots of emotion -- but under control and pleasant to listen to.

The bad news is: Despite a brave effort to tie the show together by using a frame, so that the guy Jo eventually ends up with is present from the start, the script still makes the fundamental mistake of concentrating on everything except the subtleties of the relationships among the sisters.

The only people who will be moved by the show are people who already know the book -- the emotions aren't in this script, they're only in the audience's memory.

Still, the script is far better than the songs. The composer is adequate, and every now and then shows that he might actually know what a song is. He is given so few chances to write songs, however, because the lyricist writes as if she never actually looked at a song lyric before.

The lyrics are actually tedious. They are always explicit, and the lyricist goes to great trouble to find completely abstract rhyme words so that line after line is utterly devoid of content.

There are many ways to write good songs for Broadway shows. You can use recitative in a sung-through musical like Les Miserables -- but there should be times when the structure and melodic repetition of a song serves as a climactic moment. In Little Women, the songs never rise above recitative, and when he feels the need for a climax (rarely called for by the words themselves), the composer just has the singer leap to a sustained high note.

Now and then, in a musical, you should be aware you're listening to a song, not just the introduction to a song that never comes.

So even though you can hear all kinds of riffs and licks that remind you of Sondheim or Les Miserables (sometimes both at once, which is tricky), when it comes to melody, the composer comes from the Andrew Lloyd Weber "when you need a climax go high" school of song-wrecking. Er, writing.

And the songs almost always come after a scene that just expressed exactly the same ideas and emotions -- only better. So instead of the songs moving the show forward, or being entertaining in their own right, they all feel like a book report on the preceding scene.

So where does that leave us? I recommend that you see the show for this reason: There has never been a cast so good, a show so tight and well-directed. This is what professional theatre looks like at its best. You should go see it just so you won't be impressed by the lackluster acting and directing that are the usual fare, even on Broadway, but also in local and regional theatre.

You should see it so your standards rise.

Because unless Broadway is desperate, this show won't go far. You can't hang a hit on a bad score and a weak script. Even Sutton Foster, who is the finest musical comedy actress I've seen (and I've seen Bernadette Peters ... phoning in the part of Annie in Annie Get Your Gun), can't carry this much weight on her shoulders.

*

Robert B. Parker. A new Sunny Randall novel called Melancholy Baby.

That should be enough of a review right there, but there's an interesting thing that Parker has pulled: Sunny goes to see a shrink, and the shrink is Susan Silverman, Spenser's main squeeze from Parker's more famous mystery series.

And that's a problem. Because Parker is apparently still a true believer in some of the silliest Freudian theory, and Sunny's problems and the "insights" she gains into herself are straight out of the textbook. It's a case study, superimposed on an engaging mystery novel.

Parker is such a good writer that the shrink scenes are charming and amusing. But ultimately, it's as if he decorated a beautiful room in order to hang a paint-by-numbers opus in the place of honor.

I enjoy Sunny Randall more than Spenser, even though the main thing that annoys me about the Spenser novels is Susan Silverman. The thing is, Silverman is far less annoying acting like a shrink than she is acting like a woman in the Spenser books, so it's still a net gain.

That's why this is yet another well-deserved bestseller for Parker.

*

London 1849: A Victorian Murder Story is not, as the title might suggest, a murder mystery. It's not a novel at all. It's author Michael Alpert's attempt to write a social history that readers will enjoy, by viewing 1849 London through the lens of a notorious murder case of the day.

The trouble is, there's only so far you can go on "Maria Manning might have seen this," and "Patrick O'Connor must have walked past here." And you know you're reaching when you have sentences that begin "Frederick Manning probably never saw...."

As social history, it's very good. I thrive on this stuff, mostly because it's the kind of material I use for world-building when I write novels. But as story, social history is always deficient, and superimposing a scandalous murder on top of it simply isn't enough to sustain the interest of casual readers through all 216 pages.

*

Fredericksburg, Virginia, is one of the few Civil War battles sites where you can get a sense of how the battle went, because, as at Gettysburg, the ground where it was fought is still visible, not overgrown with trees.

I went there nearly thirty years ago while in Virginia on a magazine assignment. When I went back last week, it was for an entirely different reason -- to speak at a convention of English teachers. (Much to their chagrin, since I spent most of my speech haranguing them about the fact that in English a preposition is a perfectly acceptable word to end a sentence with.)

Being a convention speaker usually means partaking at a banquet, and since the venue was a Holiday Inn Select, a chain not famous for brilliant food, my wife and I were perfectly prepared to go out for a real dinner after having pushed the cold peas and underdone chicken around on the plate for a while.

Imagine our surprise when it turns out that the chef at that motel takes his work seriously and has real talent. Keenly aware of the history of Fredericksburg, where Washington grew up and Monroe hung around a lot, the chef prepared dishes that were made using authentic (but somewhat updated) recipes from the period.

More to the point, they were delicious.

Fredericksburg is a great walking town. The historic business district is charming and very much alive; people live quite close to the center city and while boutiques dominate, there are also stores where residents can buy practical things, a sign of a thriving downtown.

And if you're looking for a Sunday brunch (as we were), you can't do better than Jake & Mike's (806 William St.), where the decor is eclectic and cool without trying to be hip, the menu is deceptively simple (no substitutions!), and the food is absolutely right.

If you want to go to Fredericksburg, the fastest route from Greensboro is to go up 29 and cut east at Culpeper. You save an hour and the scenery is far better than the solid walls of forest on I-85/I-95.


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