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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 17, 2003

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


Uptown Girls, Royalty, Big River, and Flash Cadillac

If you missed it on A&E last Sunday, watch for reruns or the inevitable DVD of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Incredibly, they distilled this Thomas Hardy classic novel into a single three-hour presentation.

With one of the most morally complicated "heroes" in literature, this story is moving and tragic; and because every actor is brilliant and every scene counts, I found myself gripped by every minute.

*

The reviews are in on Uptown Girls, and I am happy to tell you that all those reviewers are idiots.

I don't know what they expected coming into this movie -- maybe they thought, from the promos, that it was supposed to be a screamingly funny comedy.

It's actually something much better.

Brittany Murphy plays Molly Gunn, whose rock musician father and mother were killed in a plane crash when she was a child. Now in her twenties, she lives an irresponsible life, drawing money from a trust fund and looking for love in all the wrong places. In her own eyes, she is a "free spirit" -- but what she really is is spoiled, selfish, lonely, and desperately unhappy.

Then the administrator of her trust fund embezzles it all and skips to South America, and she is forced to move in with friends, where she discovers for the first time how hard it is to accommodate your life to the needs (and weirdnesses) of other people.

Worst of all, she has to get a job. And the one that presents itself is as nanny to a cold-as-ice eight-year-old (Ray, played by Dakota Fanning), who is dealing with virtual orphanhood -- her father is in a coma and her mother is in denial.

Yes, there are wonderfully comic moments as the child impatiently tries to teach the "adult" how to act like a grownup. But the story is not farcical. Instead, the two find a common bond in the loss of their parents, and they save each other from the terrible burden of grief and loneliness.

I laughed, but I also cried and felt myself washed with love and hope. When a movie can do that for me, I don't notice so many flaws and don't much care about the ones I see. I thought Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning were wonderful, and even though I dread seeing Fanning in the sure-to-be-detestable Cat in the Hat (the promos are appalling), I hope to see her in many good parts. (She was also the young Melanie in Sweet Home Alabama -- I knew I had seen her before.)

Donald Adeosun Faison is warm and funny as Huey, and Marley Shelton is exactly as annoyingly cute as she is supposed to be as Ingrid. Heather Locklear gives a bone-chilling performance as the mother. And Jesse Spencer, as Neal Fox, the musician Molly falls in love with, is obviously a star in the making. (He also played the lead in Swimming Upstream, a movie that supposedly came out last fall to rave reviews, but which I never heard of.)

As for Murphy herself, I don't think her performance is over the top, as many critics have said. For some reason she seems to irritate reviewers. Maybe I spent too much of my youth hanging out with intensely selfish, radiant, free-spirited young women (you know who you are), but I thought her performance captured that character, that age, flawlessly.

(And, just to answer the obvious question, my wife was not one of them. In fact, I married her precisely because she was a grown-up, and I was finally ready to be one, too.)

Kudos to the writers, Julia Dahl, Mo Ogrodnik, and Lisa Davidowitz (based on a story by Allison Jacobs), and the director, Boaz Yakin (who also directed Remember the Titans). They created a film that I will look forward to seeing many times in the future.

(I also selfishly hope that my own movie, Ender's Game, gets made soon enough that Dakota Fanning can play Petra.)

*

I just drove across country with a friend, and we listened to three books on tape. Janet Evanovich's latest, To the Nines, was entertaining, with a little less of Stephanie Plum's annoying family than the last few books -- which is good, because they were threatening to take over the series. The reader was the ever-annoying Lorelei King, who persisted in reading Jersey-girl Plum as if she were fresh out of Bryn Mawr -- but the book survived the reading.

We also listened to I, Claudius, a book I have long loved (and which made a great miniseries on PBS years ago). But hearing it read aloud reminded me of how episodic, disjointed, and occasionally confusing it could be. Maybe some books have to be read instead of listened to.

The gem of the trip, however, was Alison Weir's The Children of Henry VIII. Coming many decades after her career-making The Six Wives of Henry VIII, this sequel was gripping, clear, and moving. I knew these stories in general outline, but she added just the right amount of detail to bring Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary, and Elizabeth I to vivid life. The frustration of watching Mary learn nothing from her own religious struggle; the pathetic life of Jane Grey (probably the best of the lot), whose vile parents ruin her life and finally force Mary to end it; and the relief as Elizabeth repeatedly dodges the bullets aimed at her -- all contributed to a story we could hardly wait to get back to after every stop on our trip.

Some of the minor characters emerged from behind the curtain of history. It was astonishing how much the papal legates and the French and Hapsburg ambassadors influenced the history of England; and the episode of Philip II of Spain's sojourn in England made the later history of his struggle with Elizabeth far clearer -- and more piquant -- than ever.

Most painful was the agonizing story of Mary's pregnancies, set against the backdrop of burning the heretics who had not burned her when they had the power. On the one hand, she's a woman in her late thirties who must face the grief and shame (in those days) of never bearing a child, even though she longed more than anything to be a mother; on the other hand, she's a religious fanatic who is setting the stage for the centuries-long hatred of Catholicism in England -- the opposite of what she intended.

Simon Prebble's reading of the book is exemplary, but I'm willing to bet the book is just as good in print. This is history for people who thought history was boring.

*

Big River is one of the great feats of musical theatre -- a faithful yet entertaining adaptation of difficult novel, Huckleberry Finn. Twain's most-admired novel is, like Tom Sawyer, more of a collection of episodes than a single coherent story. But, as the title of the musical suggests, the story is bound together around one theme: the Mississippi.

Who could have guessed that Roger Miller -- the composer of such standards as "Do-wacka-do" and "Dang Me" (but also "King of the Road" and "Husbands and Wives") -- would be able to find exactly the right mix of sassy comic numbers, ballads, and anthems that strike a balance between Broadway and country music?

But if this musical is so good, why don't we see it produced more often? It's been a decade or so since its one Greensboro production (at the Carolina Theater). And there's not a song from the show that you'll recognize from the radio.

The lack of airplay is simple to explain. Back when Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe were putting on big hits, there were plenty of popular singers who regularly mined Broadway shows for their recordings. So long before we had a chance to see a local production of one of their shows, we had already heard countless performances of"On the Street Where You Live" and "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Shall We Dance" and even "Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

When Big River came out in the mid-80s, who was going to cover the songs from the show? Madonna? Michael Jackson?

Truth to tell, the songs should have been covered by country singers -- but there is no tradition in country music of recording songs from Broadway shows. Too bad, because I think there's a great album yet to be recorded: Songs from Big River, with artists like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Diamond Rio, Martina McBride, the Marie Sisters, and Tim McGraw.

But even without radio play for the songs, why isn't the show performed more often?

The answer is simple: Race.

No, it's not "racism" per se -- I don't know of a community theatre group that wouldn't welcome black actors with open arms.

The trouble is that season after season, community theatre groups put on shows in which every character is white. My Fair Lady is totally English; The Sound of Music only has parts for Austrians. Yes, you can plausibly cast black actors in South Pacific, and local community theatre groups have tried to mount occasional productions of all-black or mostly-black shows -- there's no ill will here, no desire to exclude black performers. But most of the time, season after season, there's no particular reason for black actors to look forward to trying out for the plays.

The solution, of course, is race-neutral casting. Why shouldn't black actors play the parts of Henry Higgins or Eliza Dolittle? Why shouldn't half the kids in the Von Trapp family be black? Audiences adjust to things like this immediately. They simply realize that race has nothing to do with the casting, and they go ahead and enjoy the show.

If community theatre groups announce a race-neutral casting policy for all their auditions (and then stick to it), gradually they'll begin to find that their casting pool isn't so excruciatingly white.

Then, when a play like Big River comes up, where race-neutral casting is impossible because the whole point of the story is that Jim is black and Huck is white, they'll have a pool of excellent black performers available for all the parts.

This week you have a chance to see this great but barely-known musical in an outdoor production at Snow Camp. Why? Because Snow Camp's regular outdoor shows have always provided lots of good parts for black actors -- so they had that pool of talent to draw from.

Director Jerry Argetsinger has ingeniously solved the problem of the river raft -- a tough effect to bring off on a dirt-floor "stage"! With new costumes and a speaker system for the keyboard instruments, the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre has begun a serious effort at upgrading.

I hope that by next year they'll have a good body-mike system, because these performers are tearing their throats out to be heard. With only trees as a backdrop, the actors get no aural feedback -- they can't tell whether the audience can hear them or not, and as a result they wear themselves out.

The good thing is they can be heard -- and seen, and enjoyed. Ryan McVeigh makes an engaging and likeable Huck Finn, and Keydron Dunn as Jim has the strength of character and vocal power to bring off one of the great parts in musical theatre (especially when he sings "Free at Last" near the end).

Chris Basso does what the original Broadway production couldn't do: make Tom Sawyer likeable. In a show-stealing performance, he captures the silly intensity of this quintessentially American character.

Daniel Phelps almost made me forget John Goodman's brilliant breakthrough performance as Pap Finn (singing "Dadgum Guv'ment") in the original production. Maegan McNerney offers a lilting performance as Mary Jane Wilkes, and Matt Campbell and Dan Kurtz are hilariously vile as the King and the Duke.

Brian Hill's performance of "Arkansas" is livelier and funnier than in the original Broadway show. And Adia Morris, Sheena Earl, and Ovella Snow do a gorgeous job in song after song (though, playing slaves, they don't get much chance to emerge as individual characters).

To get to the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, get on Alamance Church Road and follow the signs to Chapel Hill until you start seeing signs for "Sword of Peace" and "Pathway to Freedom." (The one key turn is on Greensboro Road, but the Chapel Hill sign is far more visible.) The show starts at 8:00 p.m. and finishes around 11:00, and credit cards are accepted for admission -- $12 for adults, $5 for children, which is way cheaper than Broadway, but more expensive than movies.

It's outdoor theatre, so wear mosquito repellent and bring a sweater (some people feel a chill late in the show). No refunds are given for rainouts -- instead you can come again for free, even if it's years later -- but even in this rainy summer there have only been two partial rainouts, so I wouldn't let that stop you.

*

Too bad for those of you who missed the chance to see Flash Cadillac perform with The Carolina Pops Orchestra last Saturday in the Pops Rock! fundraiser sponsored by the High Point Area Arts Council.

Held at the Showplace in High Point, the music was wonderful and a lot of us danced our brains out. Of course, Flash Cadillac has always been a nostalgia-rock group, and their original songs are nowhere near as good as their covers of hits from the fifties and sixties -- but they put on a great show. And if you plugged your ears to blank out some of the mind-numbingly loud middle registers, you could actually hear the Carolina Pops Orchestra; they're very good.

Besides the slightly-too-high volume, the only annoyances were the blandly perky "chatter" from Cindy Farmer and Brad Jones of Fox 8 and the utterly unfunny "wit" of the appalling Jack Armstrong of Oldies 93 radio. (My wife knew who he was -- she regularly switches away from Oldies 93 whenever he's on. Now I know why.)

Here's a clue to the event organizers: Next time, get an amateur to make the announcements as simply as possible, and then let us talk to each other at the tables between sets.

The food, though, was terrific! Provided by Tom & Jerry's Catering, they knew how to do hot dogs and hamburgers right. (And you could tell the Yankees from the Southerners -- including adopted Southerners like us -- by how they did their hot dogs. Mustard, catsup, and onions = Yankees. Only Southerners seem to understand that the only true hot dog has cole slaw and chili on it -- and nothing else.)

I was somebody else's guest at the gala, but next time I'll be back on my own ticket. I'll also be watching for performances of the Carolina Pops -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the Greensboro Symphony.


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