"Great Performances," the public-television series that introduced a generation to classical music, modern dance, opera and "Brideshead Revisited"--a series, in fact, that gave composers, dramatists and choreographers their first continuing presence on TV--is throwing a birthday party tonight.
"Great Performances' 20th Anniversary Special" (at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24) is special indeed, opening with an inspiring three-minute montage that amusingly captures the style and tone of a program that embodies the very ideal of television: a series of short, enriching films reflecting a diversity of genres and, as "Great Performances" veteran and host Meryl Streep puts it, expressive "of lives in art and the art in life."
The tone is playful, the material eclectic and the style, for the most part, inventive. The subjects of the films, commissioned by veteran "Great Performances" producer Jac Venza, range from a dreamy Fred Astaire fantasy to a Tanglewood-flavored Leonard Bernstein tribute (including maestro Seiji Ozawa) to a delightful mini-musical about a youth's rocket to stardom (featuring Matthew Broderick), which is arguably the show's most charming segment (written by Alan Zweibel and helmed by Patricia Birch).
Other highlights include a humorous Wendy Wasserstein theater tale tracing three generations of actresses (Blythe Danner, Nancy Marchand and Cynthia Nixon) from the turn-of-the-century Moscow Art Theater to Charlie Rose's late-night TV show, and Terrence McNally's funny/poignant glimpse of a debuting opera diva (Bernadette Peters, with Nathan Lane and Paul Sorvino).
Among the contributing celebrated artists, most "Great Performances" alumni, are Broadway composer Cy Coleman, dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp (in a provocative movement study directed by Annie Leibovitz), a pulsating hip-hop street number by the Rhythm Technicians & Rock Steady Crew, and a rafter-shattering, soulful blast of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" conducted by Quincy Jones.
Many artists--not to mention viewers--had their first encounter with the performing arts because of public TV and particularly "Great Performances," television's longest-running performing arts anthology. Sure, some of it has been stuffy, but not much and certainly not this exceptional salute. As TV celebrations go, this is vintage brandy and a wonderful strut into "Great Performances' " third decade.