Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2

“ISN’T it bliss? Don’t you approve?” These lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, could not be more apposite when it comes to the Bernadette Peters effect: her concert is indeed bliss and yes, the audience approves to the point of adoration.

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As for those question marks, there are none of any consequence. Let’s just say they are a lovely indication that despite her standing as Broadway royalty – and she looks it, with that form-fitting sparkly gown and riot of bronze curls – Peters exudes no sense of entitlement. She is warm, low-key and friendly, keeping the chat light and easy and letting the songs speak for themselves.

Most importantly, she knows exactly how to use that distinctive, sexily husky voice to best advantage. While still having a youthful cast it now sounds quite a delicate instrument, even fragile at times, but the payoff is a deeply intimate connection with the music. Peters makes choices that give fresh impetus to songs heard hundreds of times – and sung by her hundreds of times, when we’re talking about music from her Broadway shows.

Songs others might bring to a full-throated conclusion are crowned with a finely wrought thread of sound, tempos are sometimes contemplatively slow and she brings to the concert stage her skills as an actress, shaping phrases with scrupulous, insightful attention to meaning as well as form. And she never, ever over-sings. Peters’s taste is exemplary.

Sondheim’s work dominates the 90-minute concert, as it does so many concerts. But Peters sings this material by right, having had a long and close association with the composer and lyricist. In her most recent Broadway appearance (2011) Peters played Sally in Follies, from which she sings In Buddy’s Eyes and the sublime Losing My Mind. Into the Woods (Children Will Listen, No One is Alone), and songs from Anyone Can Whistle and Company are also on the set list.

Less expected are lovely interpretations of songs usually sung by men: Johanna from Sweeney Todd, Some Enchanted Evening from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and Peter Allen’s If You Were Wondering, the last with adapted lyrics. Even more enchanting is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Mister Snow from Carousel, a lilting, sweetly optimistic song from one of the greatest of all musicals.

Peters is accompanied by a mostly local 11-member band directed by a frequent colleague, the vastly experienced conductor and composer Marvin Laird. The Australian Stage Orchestra, as it is dubbed, got off to a very ordinary start on Wednesday, which may be why Peters’s opening number, Let Me Entertain You from Gypsy, was her weakest. There was also some unacceptable flubbing. The ensemble is an excellent one in theory and once things settled down it provided skilful backing. It appeared, however, to need more practice than it got before Peter’s first performance.

Gold Coast, tonight (April 5); Melbourne, Monday and Tuesday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on April 4.

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