Washington toasts titans of the arts

Official Washington doffed its cap Sunday to six titans of the performing arts at the 31st annual Kennedy Center Honors. Presented with the center’s prestigious life achievement awards were multihyphenate Barbra Streisand, thesp Morgan Freeman, country singer George Jones, choreographer Twyla Tharp and British rockers Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey.

A weekend of festivities for the honorees concluded, as usual, with a gala variety show attended by President Bush and other luminaries. The ceremony airs Dec. 30 on CBS. The Honors and surrounding events create a coveted opportunity each year for political and showbiz titans to mingle — and that opportunity was clearly cherished this time as D.C. prepares for a new administration.

“Yet this is the one occasion in Washington where partisan politics is set aside,” said George Stevens Jr., who created the Honors program and now produces with his son, Michael.

The show began with toasts to Freeman by Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood and included entertainment by blues singers B.B. King and Koko Taylor. Washington discussed Freeman’s difficult road to stardom, which included years of bit parts and even a gig dancing behind Chita Rivera at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He said the actor’s memorable role in “Driving Miss Daisy” persuaded Hollywood that Freeman “could give truth to any character he played.”

Tharp’s impressive talents were praised by Lily Tomlin, along with Kennedy Center prexy Michael Kaiser, a close chum and former colleague. Kaiser saluted Tharp’s integrity and “puritanical work ethic.” American Ballet Theater dancers Marcelo Gomez and Luciana Paris performed for the honoree.

A mini rock concert was offered in the tribute to the Who’s Daltrey and Townshend, introduced by Jack Black. The Rob Mathes band performed a medley of the rock group’s hits, accompanied by singers Joss Stone, Chris Cornell and Rob Thomas. In an especially touching moment, the two rockers were honored by a chorus of 150 New York City policemen and firefighters in recognition of the Who’s participation in the Gotham concert following the attack on the World Trade Center.

The tribute to country singer Jones was hosted by a surprise guest, first lady Laura Bush, marking the first time a member of the first family has directly participated in the event.

“You don’t have to be a country music fan to hear the sound of musical greatness in George Jones,” she said.

Singers Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Brad Paisley and Shelby Lynne performed.

The show’s finale was the Streisand tribute, hosted by Queen Latifah. Glenn Close praised Streisand’s passion while acknowledging her well-known reputation as a perfectionist, especially during her musical TV specials, “driving many devoted colleagues crazy in the process.” Streisand was honored musically by singers Beyonce, Idina Menzel, Ne-Yo, Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn.

D.C.’s official salute to the honorees began Saturday evening at the Artists Committee dinner at the State Dept., hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Previous honoree Eastwood emceed that evening’s highlight, the presentation of the colorful awards worn by each recipient. In addition, each honoree was lauded by a close colleague, including “Daisy” author Alfred Uhry for Freeman, songwriter Marilyn Bergman for Streisand and CBS anchor Bob Schieffer for Jones.

Prior to the gala, President and Mrs. Bush greeted honorees at a White House reception.

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