There is no question as to Bernadette Peters’ ability to fill a room with her presence and voice. Even when that room is the size of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Peters can make the space seem almost intimate.
On Saturday night, Peters performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at NJPAC, evoking the Big Band era and the height of Broadway’s Golden Age alike.
The evening began with several instrumental selections, courtesy of the Orchestra under the baton of Gerald Steichen. Medleys of songs from Peters vehicles Mack & Mabel, Annie Get Your Gun, A Little Night Music were punctuated by commentary from Steichen about his appreciation for Peters’ work and analyses of her career. His joy and enthusiasm can only be described as infectious , and watching him conduct the Orchestra with his whole body was grin-inducing.
After the intermission, Peters herself emerged, looking regal in purple, and this time with the Orchestra under the direction of Marvin Laird. If her banter about trying to sell her summer house fell somewhat flat, her peppy and jazzy renditions of “Let Me Entertain You” and “Nothing Like a Dame” (using “you” instead of “we” throughout) were bright and energetic.
Her rendition of the jazz standard “Fever” was impressively sultry, with just her voice, bass and drums to fill the room and create the mood. Draped over the piano, Peters did not force any embellishments on the music or the lyrics; instead, she simply let the song’s natural sensuality shine through to thrilling effect. Notably, before beginning, she quipped that she had never sung the song in public before. “Be gentle,” she cooed before beginning to snap her fingers.
Less effective were several Sondheim selections that will likely inspire debate among fans of both the singer and the composer/lyricist. Her “No One Is Alone” seemed overwrought, trying too hard to mine emotion from the lyrics when simplicity would have been stronger. And while Follies fans can (and will) debate for years the merits of Peters’ “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind” in the recent Broadway revival, her voice still did not seem right for either number on Saturday, although her emotional delivery was flawless.
But her rendition of “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd was gorgeous and refreshing, and her closing number—“Being Alive” from Company—simply soared. While Peters’ voice may not be right for every song, she always knows how to find the emotion in the music and lyrics, and make each number into its own story. It’s what makes her a star on stage, and what makes her concerts so special.