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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.