Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts

Honorees: Johnny Carson, Arthur Mitchell, Sir Georg Solti, Stephen Sondheim, Marion Williams.

Honorees: Johnny Carson, Arthur Mitchell, Sir Georg Solti, Stephen Sondheim, Marion Williams.

Participants: Jane Alexander, Jason Alexander, Scott Bakula, Daniel Barenboim , Kathleen Battle, Tony Bennett and Trio, Chicago Brass Ensemble, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Aretha Franklin, Virginia Johnson, Ted Koppel, Angela Lansbury, David Letterman, Little Richard, Amanda McKerrow, Bernadette Peters, Billy Preston, University of Nebraska Marching Band, the Vail Gospel Trio, Edward Villella, Washington Choral Arts Society, the Washington Gospel Choir.

Viewers who usually tune into the Kennedy Centers Honors program may be surprised at the unstuffy nature of this installment, with segments honoring talkshow host Johnny Carson and music industry groundbreaker Marion Williams uncharacteristically timely and upbeat.

Walter Cronkite hosts this entertaining special, taped Dec. 5, which celebrates the performing arts while honoring five distinguished contributors.

The praising of master composer Stephen Sondheim uses a diverse cast of characters, with Jason Alexander rendering the comic portion, while Bernadette Peters joins Scott Bakula to sing many of the composer’s best-knowns.

The tribute to Carson is show’s best seg with its two-prong presentation of plaudits delivered by Ted Koppel, then by David Letterman (whose Top Ten list of why he wants to be like Carson smacks of both cynicism and tribute).

The pair garners many, if not all, of the evening’s big laughs.

An uninspired performance by Tony Bennett, whose career is experiencing a resurgence among baby boomers, was clearly dropped into program to confirm such an interest rise.

But the acknowledgement to gospel singing powerhouse Marion Williams gratefully provides a much-needed lift to the lilting proceedings after lackluster and plodding tributes to Chicago Symphony conductor Sir Georg Solti and ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell.

Backed by a 100-member choir, Aretha Franklin, Billy Preston and Little Richard help bring the house down while singing Williams’ praises.

Show’s overall pace is kept brisk thanks to taut direction by Louis J. Horvitz and top-notch writing by George Stevens Jr., Sara Lukinson, Bob Shrum and John Ellard Frook.

Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts

(Wed. (29), 9-11 p.m. CBS)

Production: Taped at the Opera House of the JFK Center for the Performing Arts. Producers , George Stevens Jr., Don Mischer; director, Louis J. Horvitz; associate producer, Michael Seligman; writers, George Stevens Jr., Sara Lukinson, Bob Shrum, John Ellard Frook.

Crew: Editor, Mike Weitzman; production designer, Bob Keene; lighting director, Bill Klages; sound, Ed Greene; music director, Elliott Lawrence.

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