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TV performing arts fields its all-stars

No place resonates show business more than a backstage dressing room.

In a garret of Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre, bare lightbulbs surround the mirrors, best wishes are tacked on the wall and an ironing board stands in the corner. It looks exactly the way a dressing room should, and makes as good a place as any to talk about Great Performances' 20th Anniversary Special, a 90-minute, all-star extravaganza airing locally on WEDU-Ch.3 at 9 p.m. today.

A few nights ago, Nathan Lane took a moment to do just that.

"The program is a celebration," he said, sipping coffee he had just brought from the corner bodega, "as well as a reminder of how important the arts are."

Lane, who in less than an hour would be on stage as Nathan Detroit in the smash revival of Guys and Dolls, takes part in this special broadcast to salute television's longest-running performing arts series.

Also taking part are actors Matthew Broderick, Bernadette Peters, Paul Sorvino and Meryl Streep, not to mention directors Paul Bogart (All in the Family) and Gerald Gutierrez (the recent Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella), choreographers Peter Martins and Twyla Tharp, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, playwrights Terrence McNally (Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune) and Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles), writer Alan Zweibel (It's Garry Shandling's Show) conductor Seiji Ozawa and piano virtuoso Andre Watts.

These and many more wildly diverse talents have rallied not for a best-of hodgepodge but for eight original performance pieces that collectively pay tribute to creativity, American-style.

The pieces range in genres and styles from a documentary tribute to Leonard Bernstein to a dizzying hip-hop display by the Rhythm Technicians & Rock Steady Crew.

Kiss, Kiss Dahlings is a droll homage to the theater life with Blythe Danner, Nancy Marchand and Cynthia Nixon playing three generations of actresses in three different eras. A Simple Melody is a frothy mini-musical from Broadway composer Cy Coleman (The Will Rogers Follies).

There's a Fred Astaire fantasy with New York City Ballet stars Kyra Nichols and Robert LaFosse, and the program ends with a bang thanks to a soulful Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah led by Quincy Jones with Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis and lots of others in full voice.

Perhaps the most intoxicating piece is Zoetrope, a movement study of Baryshnikov and Tharp filmed by photographer Annie Leibovitz in her directorial debut.

Stark black-and-white images encounter a spare piano accompaniment embroidered by the dancers' informed but sometimes loopy comments: "Cats are generally conceded as the great dancers," says Tharp, adding that they "seem to be the bitchiest creatures."

Then, late in the program, Lane plays a wisecracking stage manager in The Last Mile, a tender look at an about-to-be opera star, whom he reassures at curtain time with his irreverent patter ("I only do this for debutantes. Next time you're on your own"), then hands a bent nail _ "you know, for luck."

Doubts. Compulsion. Faith. Exhilaration. They add up to a life well-known to Lane, who did himself proud on New York stages for years before hitting it big in Guys and Dolls.

"Yes, I guess I do represent a show business dream coming true," he said, smiling, "and people have been extremely happy for me."

Lane, like many of those in the anniversary show, is a Great Performances alumnus. He made his debut in a 1983 production of Alice in Wonderland with Richard Burton, and will be back before long in a documentary of the recording of the Guys and Dolls cast album.

"It's odd," he said, summing up. "It's nice. It's strange." And he laughed.

It's hard to express certain things in simple English, and that's all the more reason to watch the Great Performances special, articulate in many languages.

Meanwhile, here's to 20 more years of encores.