Saturday, December 24, 2005

Prairie Night in the Big City

If you enjoy Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on NPR and get a chance to see a live performance, grab it. Mary-Jo and I attended the taping of his Christmas Eve show at New York's Town Hall last night, and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings we've had in a long time. It was a night of Christmas songs, including several from eastern Europe performed in their native languages by a charming pair of Ukrainian sisters in traditional red-and-white dresses, a Czech father-and-daughter team, and a dimunitive, barrel-chested, mustachioed tenor from Slovenia. Jennifer Rivera, a funny (and very pretty) mezzo-soprano from the New York City Opera sang and gamely mugged her way through Guy Noir, Private Detective. Best of all, the amazing Odetta sang several spirituals, creating a stunning volume of searing, evocative sound from that tiny, frail 75-year-old body.

It's lots of fun to watch the show take shape before your eyes--an efficient machine that Keillor and his staff have obviously honed to perfection over the years, with each new act being wheeled out before the previous act ends, eliminating dead air. (By comparison the performances of Saturday Night Live that I've attended courtesy of sister Ingrid were chaotic.) The sound effects guy (not sure his name, it's not listed by that title in the program) produces an amazing number of weird sounds with his voice alone (as well as many others using the traditional assortment of wood, wire, and metal gadgets), and the two actors who perform with Keillor on the various skits manage to sound like at least a dozen people each.

Personally I also marvel at the phenomenon of Garrison Keillor himself--a big, ungainly writer with a goofy-looking haircut who never smiles and can carry a tune but certainly is no great shakes as a singer, yet with all this has somehow become a star of sorts by dint of his wit and off-beat sensibility. More power to him.

Which leads me to my final observation. This was perhaps the most religious night I've ever spent at the theatre. Practically every song was about Jesus, the presence of God was repeatedly invoked (often humorously though never sarcastically and definitely never blasphemously), and the overarching theme that united the whole package, from the lonesome-cowboys-on-the-range skit to the fake radio ads to the patter song "We're spending Chanukah in Santa Monica" to the climactic Lake Wobegone monologue, was the spirit of Christmas--a time, in Keillor's ruefully tender vision, for celebrating love with people you may not be able to stand most of the rest of the year.

Talk about old-fashioned values. But here we were, a theaterful of New Yorkers, liberals, and NPR fans, lapping up an evening of it and singing along with "Adeste Fidelis" and "Silent Night," all led by a notorious East Coast elitist, New Yorker writer, and progressive columnist for Salon magazine.

You won't find anything like it on Fox.

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