For those who’ve been listening to Garrison Keillor’s nationwide public radio show A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday evenings for many years, his recent gig at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts probably wasn’t as disappointing as it was for newer listeners. Forever fond of Keillor’s counter-cultural spoof on Americana, the old-timers found enough sentimental value to make even the mediocre parts worth seeing in person. And even if the show wasn’t up to its best snuff, it did have some of the ingredients of the best PHC shows.
There was the irony in the spiels of the show’s make-believe sponsors—the Catchup Advisory Board and the American Duct Tape Council—the familiar jingle of the Powdermilk Biscuits song, and the funny promo from Rock Bottom Airlines, whose planes coast, engines off, through turbulence so nasty you have to “tuck your uterus back in” afterwards.
There was the great classical music, some written by French composer Ibert, some taken from the American songbook, with the local Pro Arte Orchestra backing renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. There was the grittier “Boston Baked Blues” by PHC regular Pat Donahue—a song that ribbed the Boston “spahts teams” and the North Shore town of “Reveah.” And there was the downer ‘n’ dirtier blues from harmonica-playing Newton native Annie Raines, who wailed more like a Delta freight train than a Green Line subway against the inspired background of pianist Rich Dworsky and The Guys All-Star Shoe Band.
There was the mock promotion of Boston’s Theater District, “extending for a block and a half in either direction”; a funny pitch for Ipswich Fish Sticks; a homage or two to Boston’s Unitarian, literary, and Revolutionary histories; and a substandard episode of Guy Noir: Radio Private Eye (the lovelorn detective whose 1930s masculinity can’t adapt to the New Age world). And, as always, there were the silly but impressive sound effects of Fred Newman, who afterwards joined PHC actress Sue Scott at the edge of the stage for conversation and autographs.
Keillor’s best known, of course, for his monologue from Lake Wobegon, where all the men are good-looking and the children above average. This part wasn’t as good as it can be, but it wasn’t bad either, especially the surprisingly sublime meditation on George Washington, according to Keillor more like the father of our country than anyone else in U.S. history because of his self-sacrificing ability to draw little attention to himself while controlling the whole program. He was the kind of man, said Keillor, who never had a painter portray him in the act of reaching into his pants to pull up his underwear.
Though Keillor has put together a hundred better shows than the one he brought to Boston in late February, his presence was welcome at the Wang—a performance space so ornate that it looked like a throwback to the age of the Czars, when the revolution was “somewhere far in the future”; so ornate that he wondered, following his familiar trail of associations, how anyone managed to make it past the lobby to see a show inside.