Alone among awards shows, the annual Kennedy Center Honors invariably salutes people who deserve it.
This year's gala, taped Dec. 6 and airing tonight on WJZ, Channel 13 (9 p.m.-11 p.m.), continues the tradition of showcasing the best the American performing arts scene has to honor. And if some of the show's segments are a bit more spirited and memorable than others, at least everyone's heart is in the right place.
The show opens with what proves to be its high point, a vibrant salute to the Broadway composer and lyricist team of John Kander and Fred Ebb that spans their entire career, from the star of their first show (Liza Minnelli), "Flora the Red Menace," to the star of their latest, a revival of "Chicago" featuring Bebe Neuwirth.
From the opening appearance of Alan Cumming, who won a Tony for his 1998 take on "Cabaret," to the final chords of "New York, New York," the Kennedy Center stage is turned into one hot venue -- among other things proving that Kander and Ebb may be the most sensual thing that ever happened to Broadway.
It's an electric, show-stopping salute that kicks the show straight into high gear and sets a standard it doesn't match again.
Next up is Bill Cosby, introduced by some warm words from his two-time television wife, Phylicia Rashad.
Praising the Philadelphia native for having the "intelligence and grace to lift the world up with laughter," Rashad hands the stage over to Robert Culp, Cosby's co-star on "I-Spy," and Sinbad. The comedian's hilarious "true" stories about sharing a foxhole with Cosby and later being subjected to unimaginable abuse at the hands of America's favorite TV father has the audience roaring -- and the honoree trying to slip out of his box unnoticed.
The segment concludes with a moving tribute from some of the students and other people Cosby and his wife, Camille, have helped through their various charities, a segment during which the name of their slain son, Ennis, is often invoked.
Willie Nelson gets his due next, with an introduction from Tommy Lee Jones that showcases how a clean-shaven country singer from Nashville finally made it by letting his hair grow and moving to Texas. Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett and Kris Kristofferson perform a few songs (joined by Shelby Lynne during a group performance of "On the Road Again"), and even Nelson's tour bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, shows up onstage.
Composer/conductor Andre Previn gets the evening's shortest shrift -- a warm and gracious introduction from his ex-wife, Mia Farrow, followed by a performance of the song "I Want Magic," from his recent opera based on "A Streetcar Named Desire." While Renee Fleming, backed by Philadelphia's Curtis Institute Orchestra, does just fine, it's a shame the show's producers couldn't honor Previn with more than a single, three-minute musical number.
The folks at the Kennedy Center usually save their best, most rousing tribute for last, and this year it's Shirley Temple's career that's chosen to bring the curtain down.
But while it's great to see Temple sitting up in the president's box with the other honorees, her cheeks still as pouchy and her dimples still as deep as ever, the salute never catches fire.
Perhaps because most of her co-stars are no longer with us -- her career ended nearly half a century ago -- the honoring is done mostly by children (although Henry Kissinger is on hand to salute her post-Hollywood diplomatic career). They prove a talented bunch, especially some tap-dancing wonders who do Temple's legacy especially proud.
They're also asked to sing "On the Good Ship Lollipop. It's a cute song, of course, but Temple's talent was so much more than that sugary stereotype.
Better the organizers had simply turned on the tape machine and showed everyone her show-stopping numbers with the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Still, "The Kennedy Center Honors" remains one of television's finest two hours, every year reminding Americans of the vast array of talent America's stages have to offer.
Kennedy Center Honors
When: 9-11 tonight
Where: CBS (WJZ, Channel 13)
Pub Date: 12/30/98