A PBS institution enters middle age tonight with an all-star birthday gala as Great Performances 40th Anniversary Celebration premieres on many of the network’s affiliates (be sure to check your local listings).
The 90-minute clips-heavy special spotlights the breathtaking diversity that this series, TV’s longest-running performing arts showcase, has brought to viewers across the decades, although the overall sensibility of the production, taped at Lincoln Center nearly a year ago, skirts the high-brow in favor of keeping things relaxed and accessible to a wide audience. Indeed, opera – a mainstay of Great Performances over the years – is represented within the lineup only with a brief aria from Bizet’s Carmen, with sexy blonde Latvian soprano Elina Garanca reprising a highlight from her Metropolitan Opera success in the title role.
Julie Andrews, who has become something of a PBS poster girl during the Indian summer of her career, opens the program with a segment devoted to memorable Great Performances offerings drawn from musical theater, encompassing such shows as Oklahoma!, Cats and South Pacific, among many others. “Its simple premise was to provide a home for the world’s greatest artists,” Andrews says of how Great Performances was born. “The series would be a showcase for the best in music, drama and dance. And as you will see tonight, four decades later, this vision not only succeeded, but it has grown to give viewers across the country a front row seat to the performing arts.”
PBS mainstay Audra McDonald kicks off the evening’s musical lineup with a number from the Broadway musical She Loves Me, followed by a Jason Robert Brown song called “Stars and the Moon” that is a high point of the entire telecast. (Brown, who won a Tony Award a few years ago for his shortlived Broadway musical Parade, may not be familiar to you, but I suspect he’s about to break out in a big way: His musical adaptation of the movie comedy Honeymoon in Vegas just opened to rave reviews at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, while his highly anticipated musical setting of The Bridges of Madison County opens on Broadway in early 2014).
Introducing a segment celebrating the series’ legacy of great drama programs, Tony and Emmy winner David Hyde Pierce credits Great Performances with inspiring him to become an actor by exposing him during his formative years to provocative works and performances from some of the world’s best actors, while New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins reflects on how Great Performances has brought striking and original new works by George Balanchine, Jerome Roberts, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Martha Graham to a vast American audience. As an example, Martins presents members of his current troupe in a very funny dance number set to Ray Charles singing “It Should’ve Been Me.”
Rounding out the program are engaging performances by violinist Itzhak Perlman and vocalists ranging from Josh Groban and Don Henley to Patti Austin and Take 6. PBS favorite Michael Buble closes out by thanking Great Performances for giving him a showcase nine years ago when he was just starting out, allowing him to become the “humble global superstar” we see in him today. That’s just before he suggests that PBS really stands for “a Pretty Bad-ass Station” and coaxes several members of audience to join him as an onstage “mosh pit” for his final number, “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
Like I said, nothing too stuffy or high-brow here, just some exceptional performers celebrating a TV series that, in most cases, has been very good to them … and, of course, to us.