Monday, February 20, 2012

Cole Porter's "Aladdin" (1958) - a review by Robert Steven Mack

Having a four-day weekend is always tough on us hard-working students. We have to know how to spend those days without a schedule: how do we start, and how do we finish it? I was strangely adamant about what I wanted to do, however. It was Friday, and I was glad I didn't have to wake up at the usual hour and endure the usual morning procedure. Not that I don't like it, you understand; for if you were to assume that, it would be entirely incorrect. It's just that I wasn't feeling up to it that day - as I also hadn't the day before that to be sure. It has been particularly trying that day as I would have normally been in school. So you can imagine how relieved I felt to be freely walking down Beverly Drive that day with my mother, at one time fishing through her bag for any one of her daily accessories.

Simply put, I was going to the William S. Paley Center formerly known as The Museum of Broadcasting or the Museum of Television and Radio. It is a place dedicated to preserving and acknowledging a medium of our society which has, since the twentieth century been so culturally significant to us. I like to go there whenever I can to view something extraordinary from its vast collection. Having just completed another Debbie Reynold's auction in December and currently getting ready for a Warner Bros. Television exhibit, the place would hardly fit the definition of busy. Apart from that everything in their television collection is in the process is being digitalized but we could still access what we wanted. Playing the Genie in an Aladdin musical, I wanted something to watch a TV show on that. That's where the fun began. The attendant helping us said they had a Cole Porter television play from 1958 taking place in China. I decided it would be interesting to view and asked for it.

Indeed, the Cole Porter version of Aladdin was a very different version than the well-known Disney film, yet very enjoyable and extremely well told. Between station breaks of the 90 minute musical I saw commercials from DuPont Chemicals -the play was a DuPont-sponsored Show of the Month. It's so refreshing to see the national pride and care people took in presenting television advertisements in those days. I noticed that DuPont did not treat the audience as the public, but as a customer.

The Porter version of the Aladdin musical showed a more mystic genie, an impetuous love-sick Aladdin, an uncle who wasn't his uncle at all but a cunning villain playing purely for power, and a loving mother constantly at worry...along with other fun, well played characters. Being the last musical Cole Porter would work on, the numbers are crisp, catchy, and wonderfully appropriate for the story telling its own version of Aladdin. In the cast is Cyril Ritchard, Dennis King, Basil Rathbone, Anna Maria Alberhetti, Geoffrey Holder (the Genie), Howard Morris, and Sal Mineo as Aladdin -plus the housekeeper from the original Parent Trap film playing Aladdin's mother. It is interesting to note that in those days they would use American and British actors to play most of the Chinese parts. It worked out well so I won't make needless discussions on that topic.

Though performed on stage once in the late fifties and released as an album a few times, this particular Aladdin show has never been released on home video or DVD. Luckily, it is available at the two Paley Media Centers in tourist-attracting cities , both New York City and Beverly Hills, CA. That my friends is a break for society! A final parting word of fact: After the show was finished, an advertisement came up announcing that the next DuPont Show of the Month would be on Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cites , also with distinguished actors and director and that Leave It to Beaver would not be playing that night due to the airing of this special. Now that's television at its best!

Copyright 2012 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Red Pyramid - a book review by Robert Steven Mack

When seeing that Rick Riordan came out with another book after his success with the Percy Jackson series, one might only sigh and mutter flatly to oneself:"Another one?" And indeed, it looks all to much like the kind of book you've seen in the store a thousand times, especially since Harry Potter came out and started the trend in 1997 more than a decade ago: sarcastic "ordinary" boy teams with strong-minded girl, add possible wimp-on-the-outside-but-strong-on-the-inside boy. The three friends go on a big adventure and eventually learn to live with each other. The difference with this book: it was structured a different way. While I'll go further into detail later, I just want to say that the new approach carried the characters, plot and ideas into new and exciting levels.

One might start off with saying that the Kane Chronicles (starting with The Red Pyramid) is simply a reincarnation of Rick Riordan's previous series, Percy Jackson, just this time with Egyptian gods. One could say that, except it's not that simple. Indeed, one can feel the influence of the Percy Jackson series flowing through the book's reins, and a small scent of the Harry Potter trend released now, a surprising 15 years ago. It's even surprising for many of us, I'm sure, that even Percy Jackson is now relatively only a thing of the past and that Rick Riordan has moved on to a sequel series called the Heroes of Olympias and now the Kane Chronicles in which the first book was published in 2010. And indeed, that's the wonderful thing of human creativity; it's always on to the next thing. For the impeccable record, Rick Riordan has displayed that in his book The Red Pyramid with a brilliant beauty.

Not wanting to give the book away and certainly not wanting to spoil the effect it has to offer you, the plot goes something like this. For eight years ever since his mother died for a cause never revealed to him, fourteen year old Carter Kane has been travelling with his eccentric Egyptologist father for six years now, never knowing the sweet content or even the meaning of the word "home". His twelve year old sister ,however, got the other half of the bargain, living with her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Faust (no relation), in a London flat and hears constantly about how her father caused the mysterious death of her mother and is an outcast in her own way, seeing her father only two days a year (that includes her brother Carter whom she couldn't care less about). On Christmas Eve one day during their visit to London, Carter and Sadie (did I mention Carter's sister was named Sadie?) tag along with their father Julius to the British Museum where Julius blows up the Rosetta Stone among other priceless Egyptian artifacts (don't ask, just read the bloody book!) Did I mention that Julius in doing this, Julius released several Egyptian gods encased in the Rosetta Stone (which was used to decipher old Egyptian writing, hieroglyphics) some of which make themselves at home in Carter and Sadie's bodies with their father trapped in a sarcophagus by the evil god Set. he's not the kind of guy you'd want to invite to a birthday party! See wikipedia if you want to spoil the fun (no offence to Wikipedia) but truthfully, it'll all make sense in the book. Pretty soon Carter and Sadie find themselves at the heart of Egyptian mythology, scrambling to save the world, literally, from Set's disastrous plan.

Having just studied Ancient Egypt in school, this book was a great review for me as it's simply littered with Egyptian facts and legends as Carter and Sadie struggle to complete their quest. Peculiarly, this book was narrated by Sadie and Carter as they take turns telling the story through a recording. The narration on both sides is witty and well told displaying, as the siblings display their different personalities and as well as strengths and weaknesses the two share throughout the story. A fascinating display of story telling mechanics, having it told from the two different sides of our two heroes, their emotions and development play a key asset in the success in this story. Not many books do that.

I have to admit that in the beginning it was hard to get really into the story. The plot seemed rushed and a little too pretentious. Then after two chapters Sadie took over narration, and I can say that any reader will be charmed by this character's charm and fire-ball wit, in addition to the depth and intelligence suddenly being displayed on the pages in your hands. Then Carter took over again and suddenly he too seemed to be real, as real as can be: intelligent, confused, humorous in a different way. As already mentioned, the two characters bounce off each other and that drives a lot of the book. Although some similarities with Percy Jackson and faint connections with a distant Harry Potter did cross my mind as I was reading the book, the novel relatively stood on its own two feet. Distinct enough to give itself its own unique air and tone and to go places only it could go, I applaud Rick Riordan, who, I believe has topped his fantastic and entertaining Percy Jackson series. Something else though, that I couldn't help noticing is that Carter kept referring to himself as an African-American or black boy or man as if obsessed with his race. I'm not saying this was constant but noticeably frequent. Then again...who cares... its a great book!

I literally devoured this book (516 pages) over the past weekend. At times, this book was so addicting and so vivid I would scream my nervous wits out if someone entered the room. Then again there were numerous times when I laughed so hard that I could barely control myself. And that is an understatement! One can only wonder why the author intends this to be strictly told in three books, he may have a glorious series; I'm sure there is a reason. Topping his previous series and sincerely creating something that is strictly its own, The Red Pyramid is filled with epic battles, vivid and colourful characters as real as yourselves, and fantastic storytelling; the first installment of the Kane series is an amusing epic tale of heroism, choices, benevolence and character.

Copyright 2012 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!!)