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Television Reviews : PBS' Jerome Kern Salute

November 18, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

"In Performance at the White House" presents a stiff, once-over-lightly tribute to Jerome Kern tonight (Channels 28 and 15 at 8 p.m., Channels 50 and 24 at 10 p.m.). The concert was shot exactly one month ago, in the East Room. President Reagan has the best seat in the house.

Emcee Marvin Hamlisch sets the tone with excessively laudatory opening remarks that offer no real information. According to Hamlisch, "the most romantic ballads ever written have all come from the pen of one man, Jerome Kern." Yet most of these wonderful tunes go untitled here. The shows that sprouted these nameless ballads? Hardly any of them are mentioned.

The performers include Doc Severinsen, Barbara Cook, Johnny Mathis and Roberta Flack. All of them, even Severinsen, look ultra-dignified, which isn't necessarily to their advantage. In his solo set, Mathis clasps his hands over his mike as if he's praying, and he appears afraid to move out of his assigned space. However, the occasion hasn't dented his patented vibrato; it sometimes distracts attention from Kern's songs.

The vibrato is toned down, and Mathis looks looser in a duet with Flack. It's also Flack who appears least intimidated by the formal surroundings. Close-ups are not kind to Cook, and her voice is thinning out at the top, though her phrasing remains elegant.

Hamlisch introduces two children, Todd Hartman and Alisan Porter, as a budding Astaire and Rogers. They sing "I Won't Dance" with remarkable poise, but they take the song literally and don't actually dance very much. The introduction is an unfair set-up.

President Reagan closes the hour with prepared comments about Kern that, by comparison, make Hamlisch's earlier remarks sound profound.

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