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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 19, 2006

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


Idol, Cyrano, Winspear, Princes of Ireland

I fully expected to be bored with American Idol this year. My attention span for essentially meaningless contests is not usually very long.

But I'm beginning to think American Idol isn't quite as meaningless as I long supposed. I think what convinced me is John Stevens's album Red.

In case you've forgotten, John Stevens was the young, sweet, red-headed boy from two years ago. He drove Simon Cowell crazy -- Simon just couldn't understand why he kept not being eliminated, week after week.

Simon was right, of course. At that point, Stevens was so young that his shyness and lack of training triumphed over a good ear for Great American Songbook style. Stevens didn't swing; he didn't croon (not really).

And what he certainly didn't do was hit power notes and decorate melodies until you could hardly tell what they were. And that seems to be anathema to American Idol. As with previous talent shows, you can sing whatever style you want -- as long as you show off fake virtuoso riffs and make sure it sounds like you're ripping your throat out when belting at the top of your range.

Stevens didn't do that. He didn't even try to do it. He knew what he wanted to sing, and he sang it.

Now, a couple of years later, we have his album. The voice is a bit more mature, though his bass notes still haven't all come in. (Not a problem -- Sinatra's never did, and Stevens is, frankly, more compelling on his low notes than Sinatra ever was.)

Without ever sounding quite as sleepy as Perry Como, Stevens brings off every song with the sweet simplicity that was his style from the start. Only now his voice is more mature, and the arrangements better suited to his talent. His "All of Me," "The Shadow of Your Smile," and "Someone to Watch Over Me" are as pure as I've ever heard them.

He does a version of the Beatles' "Here, There, and Everywhere" that is stripped down to nothing -- and reveals that this really is a song, since it stands virtually alone and still works.

And Stevens's duet with Erika Christensen on "Let's Fall in Love" is practically perfect in every way. I've read other reviews of the album that accused Christensen of imitating Jane Monheit, a statement so deeply ignorant that I had to laugh. Christensen has quite a unique voice that matches Stevens's -- or surpasses it -- in purity, and though it is obvious she has the pipes to really blow, she takes it lightly, matching his style perfectly.

Is Stevens perfect? Of course not. He still wanders a bit on pitch, but rarely; he's still young and it still shows, but only a little. I listen to this album now in regular rotation with Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr., and it holds up well.

That's the reason American Idol is the real thing. It isn't just winning the contest that gets you a recording contract, where you sell like a novelty to fans of the show. Kelly Clarkson, for instance, seems to have staying power. And Clay Aiken, who came in second, seems to be around for a while.

Fantasia, unfortunately, decided to return to hip-hop with her first full album, which excluded most of the people who voted for her, since there's not a song or even a note on that album that resembles the marvelous voice that won our hearts. I hope she takes a page from Queen Latifah's book and puts out an album now that shows that she can sing.

This year's show has brought us, I must say, the best collection of voices we've seen yet. In previous years, we've been lucky if, coming into the final twelve, we had a half-dozen voices that were really worth listening to. And last year, by the end we found ourselves with a Final Two who were actually kind of lame.

Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice -- lovely, likable people, both of them. But Underwood was always straining her voice just to approach credibility as a country singer. It only sounded great to people who didn't know what the great country singers sound like. She wouldn't last ten seconds on the stage with Reba, Gretchen, Wynnona, Trisha, or Martina.

And Bo Bice is fine. Nice. Sweet. But despite his best attempt, he is not a power rocker. He's actually got something of a crooner voice. There's more Bing than Bob Seger in Bice.

Bice and Underwood might well have been the best last year -- certainly I didn't think there was any real injustice except to Constantine, and I confess he was more Broadway than rock and probably didn't belong in this contest, either.

This year it's a different story. Everyone in the top twelve belonged there -- even Little Kevin Covais, who irritates Simon just the way John Stevens did.

And, incredibly enough, the voting seems to be mostly in line with star quality. The bottom three last week -- Ace Young, Melissa McGhee, and Lisa Tucker -- were all talented, but gave the most forgettable performances. Ace Young in particular is going to have a tough row to hoe: He's pretty, but his interpretations all seem to be the lite version, and he has no idea what it means to sing the lyrics -- to sing the song as if he meant it.

I like Lisa Tucker a lot, but her youth shows, and her voice, which would have been one of the best last year, pales in comparison with Paris Bennett's or Mandisa's.

And McGhee simply never found her stride: There was no reason to look forward to her version of any song.

Now there are eleven left, and I like every one of them.

In the first rank, we have the probable final four: Chris Daughtry, who is the real thing, a blow-them-out-of-the-water rocker whose voice is so good he could also croon old standards. When he sang "Higher Ground" and managed to put Stevie Wonder runs and make them feel like they belonged in his version of the song, I was blown away. There has simply never been so good a male voice on that stage.

Taylor Hicks is a true original. He means every word he sings, and nails every note, and even his moves feel more real than choreographed, and totally from the heart. He is more fun to watch than anyone, and yet when I close my eyes, his is a voice I want to have on recordings that I can listen to over and over.

Mandisa is the true diva this time. She can decorate with the best of them, but I appreciate the fact that she doesn't try to trick us into thinking she can sing. She is not afraid to hold out a note, long and fine, letting it rest on its quality instead of its intricacy. And she knows she's beautiful and sexy, so her movements are bold and unashamed: It turns her size into an asset instead of a detriment.

Paris Bennett is the most polished, experienced performer on that stage. From a show-biz family, she is a great singer-dancer; and, tiny as she is, she struts that stage with such confidence and boldness that I can't help but think of a cross between Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. Her singing is strong, but of these four she is the one most tied to the standard American Idol voice. Any other year, she would have been the hands-down favorite to win ... but this year, who can say?

Then we have the country singers.

When Simon said that Kellie Pickler was better than last year's winner, he spoke the simple truth. Where Underwood strained (and continues to strain), Pickler has the voice. And, unlike Underwood, she has the pizzazz to sell the song. I'd buy a Pickler album, provided it didn't include any of the silly title songs they force the winners to sing. (Which is why I almost hope she doesn't win.) She won't be in the final four, but she'll have a recording and performing career and, I predict, in five years she'll still be going strong while Underwood may not last.

Bucky Covington is so authentic it hurts. You see him driving pickup trucks all over the South. Then he smiles, and despite the ragged teeth, you just have to smile back. But what you don't expect is that he'll be able to deliver good, solid country rock the way he does. My older daughter commented that she wished he'd stop doing deep plies -- but when you're wearing cowboy boots, there's a limit to how much choreography you can do. I don't think Covington has a voice that begs to be recorded, but he's engaging and it just feels good to watch him sing.

Then there are the Broadway singers.

Katharine McPhee is marvelous -- if she had a different type of voice, I'd tag her for the final four. But the truth is, she's Broadway, and should develop her voice in that direction. No decorations, just power and heart. I could hear her bringing off almost any of the great Broadway showstoppers, from "People" to "Old Maid," from "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to "The Party's Over." She's too young for "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch," but I think she could bring off "Send in the Clowns."

Kevin Covais keeps getting treated by the judges as if he were just a novelty act, and indeed his little speech impediment and his goofy, round-headed appearance certainly mark him that way. Yet when he talks, we can see fire and ambition -- and when he sings, we hear a voice that can truly sell a song that depends on melody and words, rather than pure power. Simon may have hated his Stevie Wonder song, but what I loved was that Covais turned it into a delightful Broadway tune, despite the complete inappropriateness of a highly-sexed song for somebody who looks like he should be playing with Legos. Covais is a natural for Barnaby in Hello Dolly!; when he gets older (and taller) he'll be a splendid performer in comic and, yes, dramatic roles. Remember that Michael Crawford's goofy young voice grew up into Phantom -- Covais is already better.

And, finally, the bottom three -- who are still very good.

Lisa Tucker is a delight. She is without question the most beautiful girl on that stage; when she smiles she just breaks your heart with her sweetness and youth. In three years she'll come into the voice that's under construction right now. In any other year, she'd be in contention. But then, that's also true of Kinnick, and she didn't even make it into the final twelve.

Elliott Yamin has a wonderful voice -- and on recordings, he would be one of the top singers in the competition. But he simply has no presence on stage. If he weren't so goofy looking, we wouldn't remember him at all, week to week. And he keeps thinking he's a different kind of singer than he is. You're a crooner, Yamin! A crooner with real character -- not Perry Como, but Tony Bennett. Or maybe somewhere between Tony Bennett and Leon Russell.... Anyway, I can't wait for his album.

Ace Young is talented. But he doesn't sing from anyplace near his heart, and his fear shows constantly. He's used to having his pretty face win over an audience -- but when he is on the same stage with the raw handsomeness-charged-with-testosterone of Chris Daughtry and the from-the-heart physical and vocal powerhouse of Taylor Hicks, Young's prettiness evaporates along with the liteness of his song interpretations. And yet he has the native talent to do much better than he's doing. I just think he's panicking right now and, if he holds on long enough, he might get past it and start using the voice in the service of the songs.

But of course the contestants aren't the only people on the show. For one thing, the judges are back, and I've decided I like them all. Randy has a habit of such vagueness that I can't imagine anyone finding his comments helpful. But he does know who is recordable when he hears them, and says so.

Paula knows dancing when she sees it, and on that topic her comments are more valuable than anybody else's. But otherwise she is there just for encouragement, though when somebody is really awful, she does find a way to say so, kindly.

Simon watches everyone as if through a microscope -- he does not take their feelings into account, but only examines his own response, as if he were a stranger seeing them for the first time. This can make him obnoxious to an audience that sees the performers as human beings -- but it also makes him the most valuable of the judges to performers who have the courage to listen and the wit to understand what to do about his negative statements.

And, finally, there's Ryan Seacrest. He has grown into one of the best hosts on television. Relaxed, natural in front of the camera, he is actually able to bring off the torment of the contestants on elimination night without seeming cruel, and his unscripted comments are usually delightful. He's short, his face is badly asymmetrical, and yet I can't help but like him and enjoy watching and listening to him.

He sorely tried my patience, though, during the past few weeks, as he started challenging Simon to offer more constructive criticism. I found this absurd to start with, since Simon is by far the most constructive of the judges, in the sense that he tells the contestants true and fairly clear things.

But Simon's job is not to be the coach and trainer of these singers; rather he and the other judges are to help us find words for what was right and wrong with the performances we've just seen. Frankly, I'm tired of the way the other judges feel free to interrupt him, when he never interrupts them. And sometimes there is simply nothing constructive to say. When Simon says, "You just bought your ticket home" or "that was a disaster," he's usually dead right, and while sometimes, as someone who does teach and train performers, I think he's not right about what caused a performance to be so awful, I don't expect him to know that. Simon is a finder of talent, not a teacher.

But Seacrest seems to think Simon should be something that he's not, and the result as embarrassment for both Simon and Seacrest, as the host asked the judge for what the judge neither could nor should attempt to deliver.

I mean, what in the world is constructive about Randy's "It was just awright, dawg"?

Doesn't matter. It's a fun show even when the contestants aren't all that great. This year, though, we happen to have a terrific group, and I think a half dozen good careers will be launched from this stage. I hope you haven't gotten tired of the show; and even if you have, give it another try.

*

On Friday night, my wife and I made a date to go see a movie following the rehearsal for our production of Romeo and Juliet. But as we perused the movie listings, the only film we had any interest in watching was Failure to Launch -- and frankly, we didn't have all that much interest in that, either.

So we stayed home with our daughters, fanned out a selection of DVDs, and picked the lavish, gorgeous 1990 French film adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gerard Depardieu in the greatest role of his career.

I must confess to having loved this script since I first read it in high school; Edmond Rostand understood what Noble Romantic Tragedy was all about, and even though he also parodied this kind of writing in his The Romantics (on which the musical The Fantasticks was based), he clearly wrote from the heart.

It is a Courtship of Miles Standish sort of story, in which one man helps his friend to woo the very woman that he loves himself. In this case, the brilliant but ugly poet/swordsman Cyrano helps the handsome, passionate, but nearly-wordless Christian de Neuvillette (Vincent Perez) court the beautiful -- but also intelligent, strongwilled, and, alas, selfish Roxane (Anne Brochet).

What results is tragedy, but with such flair, such delight, such humor, such adventure that even though we have to glance down to read the subtitles, by the end we're weeping like babies, yet so full of high passion that we feel ennobled just by having watched it.

Yes, I know, most of hate subtitles. And the beginning moves slowly, as we watch Cyrano challenge a bad actor and force him off the stage at the start of a performance. But soon enough we plunge into the heart of the story, and after that the subtitles are forgotten. The language, the interpretation of the actors, the passion in their voices, all are so beautiful and so essential to the story that one cannot bear the thought of some lesser actor dubbing in a substitute voice.

This film is as pure an adaptation as you could hope to find. Despite the pleas of so many speakers at the Oscars, there are reasons for staying home and watching DVDs -- and one of them is that films of real merit as so very rare. This is one of them.

The only preparation you need is this: At the end, there is a classic problem of translation. The very last line of the play (and the movie) is "mon panache," which the play has transformed into a symbolic pun. Some translations even render it "my white scarf" or "my plume" -- but it means all three at once, in a well-earned public symbol that is obvious to French viewers but often lost on anglophones.

*

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Pardonable Lies, by Jacqueline Winspear. I thought it was a good mystery novel and, more important to me, a lovely historical novel of life in the early 1930s in England.

Since then, I have read the first two novels in the series, Maisie Dobbs and Birds of a Feather, and I have to tell you this is one of those rare series of novels that completely draw you into another world. Other reviewers have compared these books to the Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and I have to agree. One would not think England could offer us a setting as foreign as Botswana, but the passage of 76 years has made that era almost as strange to us.

The first book is designed to establish the character of Maisie Dobbs, so after a solid opening, it digresses into an extended flashback into Dobbs's story, showing how, as an orphan whose father's only employment was selling from the back of a cart, she was forced to go into service in a rich family's household; but there, her native curiosity and brilliant intelligence won her the sponsorship of her employers.

She even found love on the fringes of the upper classes, but the Great War (World War I) interrupted her life, as it did so many others'. She loses friends, makes her own sacrifices, and then, in the "present" of the story, solves a mystery tied to the damage done by that war.

It is the second book in the series, Birds of a Feather, that moved me most, however, if only because of the reason for the killings around which the mystery centers. All these stories are wan from the bloodletting of the war, yet they show the survival of the human heart, however damaged it has become. Maisie Dobbs is not just a solver of mystery, her endeavor is, wherever possible, to heal. Not everyone wishes to be whole, of course; but she is deft at finding ways to bring people comfort, solace, reconciliation, forgiveness, or at least the strength to bear what must be borne.

*

Edward Rutherford's book The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga is a noble enterprise. He attempts to give us a fictional look at various key eras or episodes in Irish history, from the pre-feudal era of Druid religion and the Black Bull of Connacht to the beginnings of conflict between the English and Irish in Dublin during the reign of the Tudors.

The problem with books like this is that there is no storyline that runs through it, despite the reappearance of a handful of family names. And the early stories are far more interesting than the later ones.

When Rutherford is mining the legends of ancient Ireland, the stories are fascinatingly, deliciously alien. But when he comes to more recent times, his gift of inventiveness seems to dry up, and he is reduced to plots that hinge entirely on misunderstandings and ridiculous coincidences -- you know, the plots where if one person simply said something truthful to another, all conflicts would quickly disappear.

Never mind. The first half of the book was worth the ride. Particular when read aloud on cd by John Keating, whose Irish accents are gorgeous (English is never spoken more musically than by an Irishman). But I doubt I'll ever open the sequel, The Rebels of Ireland. Rutherford, alas, is more interested in explicating history than in telling believable personal stories, and so his fiction cannot sustain the weight he attempts to pile onto it.


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