- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Count on a Hollywood leading lady to steal the show. This past weekend's Kennedy Center Honors a 25th anniversary production put honoree-at-last Elizabeth Taylor in the spotlight once again.
If the audience at Sunday's taped-for-television show in the Opera House wasn't holding its collective breath watching the physically frail 70-year-old star move with obviously pained effort, it was laughing at her well-placed, spontaneous jibe from her box seat in the mezzanine balcony to actor John Travolta onstage.
In delivering his tribute to her during a scripted ceremony that has varied little in 25 years Mr. Travolta said he once had a dream of the actress unclothed that was inspired by her smoldering, sexy role in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Miss Taylor broke rank and custom when she shot back: "I'm not wearing anything under this dress." Soon, too, the fabled screen goddess let out loud screams of mock horror and delight at the rendition onstage of a Stephen Sondheim number from his show "Company," whose title "(I'm not) Getting Married Today," belied her many marriages.
Explosions of cheers and kisses erupted throughout the night. Honoree James Earl Jones audibly replied to his friend Sidney Poitier, who had delivered a moving homage, with a basso profundo, "Thank you Sidney."
The five performing artists being heralded for their lifetime contributions to American cultural life normally stay silent throughout, but formality goes only so far. This year, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were the silent ones although Mr. Bush obviously enjoyed a slight ribbing from another Hollywood pro, Steve Martin. Mr. Martin led the tribute to singer-songwriter Paul Simon with a mix of praise and badinage.
The two-day celebration is also old home week for the many past honorees who attend, some of whom, such as Harold Prince, a 1994 honoree, and Mr. Poitier, a 1995 honoree, take part in onstage festivities as well.
Mr. Prince led off on behalf of Chita Rivera, who was resplendent in a fire-engine-red Carmen Marc Volvo strapless gown. The stage suddenly filled with dozens of dancers re-creating a scene she helped make famous as the brassy Anita in "West Side Story." Brian Stokes Mitchell made a fleeting appearance on behalf of the multitalented dancer-singer-actress, the first Hispanic-American honoree.
Few in the audience could resist, either, the sight of Placido Domingo and Frederica von Stade giving conductor James Levine his due as an honoree as he sat alongside former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The longest segment was a fast-moving cameo songfest directed at honoree Paul Simon from James Taylor, Alicia Keyes, Alison Krause and John Mellencamp plus the Dixie Hummingbirds.
Longtime master of ceremonies Walter Cronkite was celebrating his 21st year in the job, an occasion that inadvertently turned him into a part-time comedian as well. The master TV announcer missed some cues in his pre-programmed closing words but recouped quickly with some off-the-cuff words mocking his gaffe.
"I'm going to get those [cue] cards; they're historic," Kennedy Center trustee Melvyn Estrin said at the gala dinner that took place afterward in the building's grand foyer.
Gilded attendees paid $3,000 for orchestra seats at Sunday night's show to mix with what seemed like half of the U.S. Senate, Cabinet members (Secretary of State Colin L. Powell hosted the Saturday night dinner where honorees received their awards), and such performing-arts-world luminaries as Leontyne Price, Edward Villella, Ron Silver, Dionne Warwick, Kelsey Grammer, Burt Bacharach, Cecily Tyson, Glenn Close, Angela Bassett, Dina Merrill, Lynn Redgrave and Laurence Fishburne.
Despite the hoopla and rubbernecking, some longtime patrons were a touch blase about the production, which has become something of a standardized ritual over the course of a quarter century. "They're less exciting than they used to be, probably because they are spending less money on them," said Richard Marriott of the hotel clan, whose mother was one of the center's original trustees and who has been at every gala.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, another 25-year stalwart, laughed recalling the one time he left early because his family's front-row seats had been claimed "by some Chinese." He ended up watching the rest of the show on a TV monitor in one of the Kennedy Center's bars.
Full of sentiment as it was, the 2002 show seemed pared down in comparison with some put on in the past under the direction of George Stevens Jr., who was brought onstage at the end. "When we shine the light on what is best in the arts, we shine the light on what is best in the country," he said before calling on all the backstage help and musicians to join the cast in singing "America the Beautiful."
Additional material provided by Christian Toto and Kevin Chaffee.


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