Keillor's lingering farewells hint Wobegon won't be gone

A Prairie Home Companion: The Second Annual Farewell Performance Stage entertainment by Garrison Keillor. Executive producer: Mr. Keillor. Co-executive producer and director, Art Wolff. Garrison Keillor and friends dropped by Radio City Music Hall recently for a series of performances that resembled a cross between a Lake Wobegon class reunion and an informal celebration of Americana. ``A Prairie Home Companion: The Second Annual Farewell Performance'' not only described the occasion but more than suggested that this was not the last farewell. As Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon's ambassador to the USA, remarked earlier this year, ``It was so much fun leaving that we're coming back to say goodbye again.''

The farewell performance followed a format familiar to and cherished by the ``Prairie Home Companion'' regulars who thronged the Music Hall at the performance I attended.

There was Mr. Keillor, dinner-jacketed with red tie and socks to match, the slightly rumpled, engagingly laid-back host and comp`ere. Whether as verbal essayist or soloist in song and songlet, or carrying the baritone line in a vocal ensemble, Mr. Keillor commanded the stage without monopolizing it. He shared the audience's enjoyment of the fellow artists who completed the format of this highly original radio-TV-stage show.

The casual format is familiar enough to the millions of listeners who first made ``A Prairie Home Companion'' a national institution on National Public Radio. The Keillor pieces are interspersed with vocal and instrumental specialties plus, of course, Wobegon mercantile commercials. Several segments of the radio serial ``Buster the Show Dog'' feature Richard Dworsky, Tom Keith, Kate MacKenzie, and Dan Rowles.

In the singing department, Keillor and Karen Morrow dueted a new version of ``You're the Top,'' while Miss Morrow soloed in ``Broadway Baby.'' For musical variety, there were the Everly Brothers as well as bluegrass/folk singers Robin and Linda Williams (whose ``Across the Blue Mountains'' was delicately touching).

Instrumentalists, in solo and concert, included guitarists Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke, suave ragtime and jazz pianist Butch Thompson, and Vince Giordano leading the ``1920s style'' New York jazz band.

Thus does ``A Prairie Home Companion'' blend the regional and the cosmopolitan, small-town flavor and big-city e'clat. Keillor has just as much fun with Wobegon idiosyncrasies as with the more flamboyant eccentricities of New York City. In his view, ``New York people thrive on adversity and they create more of it whenever they can.''

Witnessing what was once a radio show being recorded (for radio and TV broadcast) before a very large live audience was part of the fun of the Music Hall engagement.

Except for a cutout Midwestern type clapboard house, the show's scenery consisted mostly of scrims and curtains and a background of twinkling stars. Black-clad TV cameramen and technicians trailing black wires scurried about the scene like latter-day equivalents of ``invisible'' Kabuki stagehands. When the bright lights were focused on the audience, the spectators became part of the show, especially when Keillor led us in a community sing.

In a recent announcement that he would return ``once more to the lake,'' Keillor explained: ``New York is my home, so, of course, I wanted to do the show here ... at Radio City Music Hall ... a major landmark for us Lake Webegon people. It is our farewell performance and I hope the first of many.''

A hope that will lift the hearts of Wobegon fans. In the words of a once-popular song, ``Say `Au Revoir' but not `Goodbye.'''

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