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Keillor, 'Prairie' are at home at Tanglewood

A Prairie Home Companion
At: Tanglewood, Saturday night

Garrison Keillor, now a film star, brought his radio show ``A Prairie Home Companion," also a film star, to the stage of the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood Saturday night -- where it was taped for an airing on television's ``Great Performances" yesterday.

Nevertheless, ``A Prairie Home Companion" remains primarily addressed to the radio public, to the ear, to the imagination, and to the nostalgia of Americans, Keillor's own generation, of course (he turns 64 in August), but also to younger people -- there were many children in the audience. It's a nostalgia for an America that maybe never was, but maybe ought to have been, and there are worse blueprints to offer for the present and the future.

For television, there was a more elaborate stage setting than usual. In the background stood a white frame two-story house surrounded by trees and hung with Fourth of July bunting -- and the porch light was left on. Keillor himself enlivened his dark blue suit with a red tie and matching sneakers, and when he settled on a high stool to deliver the news from Lake Wobegon, it became clear he was wearing high red sox too.

There was quite a bevy of guest stars, including Meryl Streep, who appears in ``The Prairie Home Companion" movie, along with velvet-piped Gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, the Canadian female trio Wailin' Jennys, as well as the regulars, including the Hopeful Gospel Quartet, the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band, Erica Rhodes, and the one-man sound-effects department, Fred Newman, who duetted with Keillor in a couple of amusing sequences, creating the sounds of an airplane, a polar bear, and the voice of a singing lobster.

Streep, dressed in jeans, a long jacket, and a red shirt, looked youthful in her blond , dancing ponytail. She joined in the festivities in a fresh, informal manner that is infinitely more appealing than her First Lady of the Screen persona. She participated in a couple of sketches, playing the role of the laid-back mother in a takeoff of a biblical parable, ``The Prodigal Daughter" (``What's that tattoo?" she asked, while Rhodes responded in a surly voice, ``It's Sanskrit") , and the gabby leader of a trio of hopefuls auditioning for a show called ``American Ego."

In an impressive sequence, Streep joined Keillor in reading a series of short poems by mostly contemporary American writers, including John Updike, Mary Oliver, James Wright, Robert Lax , and Henry Taylor. Confessing that she wanted to be an opera singer when she first visited Tanglewood as a child, Streep warbled sweetly but not always certainly ``Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling," ``What'll I Do," and more verses of ``Down in the Valley" than she could remember.

Steele unfurled a jubilant and consoling voice in Mahalia Jackson's hit ``How I Got Over," and the Wailin' Jennys sounded sweet and elegant in close harmony, especially in ``The Sound of One Voice" and the a cappella ``Bring Me a Little Water Sylvie."

But it was Keillor's show , from the audience warm - up at the beginning to the post-performance singalong of ``America the Beautiful" and ``Amazing Grace." He permitted himself a few topical allusions about the president at Graceland, and the vice president at the trigger, talked about ``back in the day" (``Lindbergh flew the Atlantic without a radio , but we can't do without a cellphone in the produce section"), and mentioned tomatoes only once.

His monologue was about the Fourth of July parade in Lake Wobegon and involved Siamese twin flag-bearers, the village elders costumed as the Founding Fathers, a water-skiing Superman, a parachuting Elvis, and a wall of flaming fireworks. Keillor himself is about as comprehensively inclusive as his tall tales, and he was onstage almost constantly, hovering over the proceedings even when he was not in front of the mike. He probably turned on that welcoming porch light himself.

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