About a third of the way through the first half of Bernadette Peters' Radio City Music Hall solo debut concert on June 19, the orchestra — led by Jonathan Tunick — began to play one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best known songs, "Some Enchanted Evening." As the familiar strains of the South Pacific anthem wafted through the cavernous hall, a sense of peace filled the air, a feeling of calm and tranquility not often found in modern-day life, especially in post-Sept. 11 New York City. As the Tony winning star began singing the Hammerstein lyric — "Some enchanted evening you may see a stranger, you may see a stranger across a crowded room" — a warmth familiar to Peters fans spread among the audience, and all were captivated by the singing actress' many charms. It was one of the highlights of an evening that offered contemplative renditions of several R&H tunes in what turned out to be a joyous and touching celebration of two of Broadway's most successful songwriters.
The concert — ably directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, who helmed Peters' triumphant Carnegie Hall debut — began with an overture of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes that accompanied a large screen displaying several photos of vintage sheet music covers as well as pictures of the evening's three stars: Peters, Rodgers and Hammerstein. The final image was the now familiar press shot with Peters sporting a heart-shaped tattoo that reads "B.P. + R&H." As a handful of young performers walked onto the Radio City stage, Peters could be heard offstage singing the opening lines of "Do Re Mi." The star of the night, dressed in a strapless, glittery red gown, entered to a storm of applause and led the youngsters in an upbeat version of The Sound of Music classic. Peters introduced all her young friends and then segued into State Fair's "It's a Grand Night for Singing," the opening track from her newest recording, "Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein." The former Annie Get Your Gun star then revealed that the next little-known gem, Allegro's "So Far," was a favorite ever since she heard Frank Sinatra — whom she had seen perform years ago at Radio City Music Hall — sing the tune. Standing centerstage at the microphone stand, she followed with a terrific, concentrated version of "If I Loved You," sung mostly in glorious head tones. "The Gentlemen Is a Dope" displayed Peters' remarkably facile voice, one that is suited to most any style; here she offered a bluesy, jazzy take on the tune, the second song of the evening from Allegro.
Her voice filled the hall with the aforementioned "Some Enchanted Evening," and then came a thoughtful "It Might As Well Be Spring," a work the singer admitted she had worked on years earlier in voice lessons but had resisted as an adult until she revisited the lyrics last year. Peters jokingly related that Richard Rodgers was her "first"; that is, the first celebrity she had ever seen up close, in person. When she asked one first row concertgoer who his "first" was, he appropriately replied, "Bernadette Peters"; the out-of-towner, it seems, had seen the star during her Tony winning run in Song & Dance. Another attendee answered, "Mr. T," although the former got the chance to help Peters sit on the edge of the stage, where she offered a gentle rendition of "Something Good," the one song of the evening that boasted both lyrics and music by Richard Rodgers. That song was actually preceded by Carousel's "Mister Snow," which Peters performed with just the right notes of joy and anticipation.
Peters introduced pianist Joseph Thalken, conductor Jonathan Tunick and the evening's orchestra and then launched into a breezy "I Haven't Got a Worry in the World" from Anita Loos' play Happy Birthday. The first act ended with a wonderful dance routine featuring the "Bernadette Peters-sized dancers." Moments earlier, Peters had explained that she had hoped the Rockettes would join her for a number, but the famed dancers, she was told, had a "previous engagement." To offset that disappointment, a group of dancers that wouldn't "outsize" her was formed, and Peters joined them for an energetic tap dance routine that ended with the legendary Rockettes high kicks line.
Act II got off to a comical start with vintage black-and-white film footage of Jack Benny — who lamented a $6 ticket price to a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical — and Groucho Marx, who joked with the songwriting team on his TV show, "You Bet Your Life." Peters returned to the stage outfitted in a stunning, sparkly silver gown and belted out another of the night's magical moments, "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame." She seemed to relish singing the provocative Hammerstein lyrics, and the crowd responded with cheers. One of my favorite R&H songs, "Something Wonderful," followed a toe-tapping "I Whistle a Happy Tune," and then Peters brought onto the stage her long-time musical director, piano accompanist and friend, Marvin Laird, who she explained will serve as musical director for her upcoming production of Gypsy. Laird accompanied BP on two piano-only songs, heartfelt versions of "What's the Use of Wondrin'?" and "This Nearly Was Mine."
Flower Drum Song's "A Hundred Million Miracles" led into a moving, beautifully sung "Edelweiss" that was chock-full of emotion, one of the most tender points of the night. A song I'd never heard before, the comical "It's Me" from the short-lived Me and Juliet, preceded The King and I's "Hello Young Lovers," which Peters sang stirringly. She ended her Rodgers and Hammerstein recital with a belty, full-voiced rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" that brought the audience to its feet. Peters returned to the stage in yet another slinky gown and bid the audience farewell with an encore of "Out of My Dreams." A dream of an evening it was.
("Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein," which features 13 R&H tunes, is available on the Angel Records label.)
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