'First Night' can be first-rate - or a flop; Tom Rush sings with friends

Last Saturday night Boston was again overrun by an estimated 200,000 merrymakers who came to see the eighth annual First Night celebration. Some 500 artists performed in more than 100 separate events. From the poetry readings to the dance companies, choral groups, and mime troupes, Boston was awash in entertainment.

The Monitor sent three reporters around the city who came back with these observations:m

First Night is for families.

It's evident everywhere: at the special children's shows in the afternoon, on the streets, in the performance halls, and most prominently at the parade. The march down Boylston Street, with banners, puppets, and bands, was composed mostly of children and their parents.

It is this attraction to the family that, at the core, makes Boston's citywide artistic feast each New Year's Eve so unique and so popular. At First Night, the purpose of celebrating the new year is refocused: The celebration is more for artistry and beauty than for carousing and glass-tipping.

There were disappointments. ''First Light,'' advertised as an approximation of the aurora borealis, was little more than programmed stage lights thrown on a wall of First and Second Church on Marlborough Street. But inside, storyteller Jackson Gillman did not let down his rapt listeners - mostly children - as he spun tales of mermaids and Jewish families and ''the earth's heart.'' Like a fine weaver, he aptly blended his voice, expressive body movements, sign language, and fine characterizations into one delightful whole.

Teen and young adult audiences filled the dance halls to see the Boston Ballet, Concert Dance Company, and the Danny Sloan Dance Company. At one show, the Berkshire Ballet sparkled with a piece appropriately named ''Celebration,'' set to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. The stage sang with expression as the company used ensemble movement to highest effect.

Copley Square seemed the centerpiece of the evening. People swarmed over the area, inscribing their names in the many blocks of unsculptured ice; while others gawked at the 30-foot-tall ''Kephren of Giza'' sculpture or the Westin Hotel's frozen choo-choo train, while Laserscape's green and red lasers arced overhead. - David Wilck

The ''Video Magic'' presentation at Hynes Auditorium needed more video and less magic. Magician Ron Lovely had the difficult job of trying to entertain restless children between screenings of some sensitive video art innovations - innovations that were a little subtle for the children.

Of these, Meredith Monk's ''Ellis Island'' was on top of my list with its creamy white and black images depicting immigrant life.

''Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys,'' who played at the Franklin Institute, brought a sensitive brand of bluegrass. Rather than descending to raucous showmanship, they allowed the music to speak for itself. The approach worked. If they only had played longer, much of the audience might have given up the fireworks display to remain. - David Cheezem

I started out with the best-laid plans.

My two cohorts and I had planned to scamper around to five events each, staying a half-hour here, 15 minutes there, to emerge with a smorgasbord of reviews. It didn't turn out quite that way - at least for me.

I got waylaid for my first event, ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' at the Boston Shakespeare Company. It just wasn't the kind of play you could spend 15 minutes watching.

Director Peter Sellars took ''Dream'' out of the forest and dropped it into what looked like a co-ed dorm. The main props were a double bed and a green blanket, and the four (yes, four) players wore bathrobes. He stuck the script in a Cuisinart and out came a 90-minute spliced version, an oddball comedy that was heavy on sexual innuendo and lopsidedly paced.

I dashed over to the Salvation Army in time to catch the sweet, tight harmonies of the New England Gospel Ensemble. It wasn't as rousing as I had expected, but one number, ''Sunshine in My Soul,'' got the audience clapping and singing in fine unity.

Next was a quick hop to the Exeter Street Theatre, which was showing short films by independent Boston filmmakers. My favorite was ''House Party'' by Reginald Hudlin. This funny, endearing film about a black teen-ager sneaking out to a party showed how universal the concerns and behavior of teens are.

So in the end, I got to only three events. There's far too much to see, and too many people wanting to see it. Some of the events are top-notch, some humdrum, and they're spread far apart. But if you don't set your plans in concrete, you'll find that First Night can be the adventure that art is supposed to be. - C.F.

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