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Bernadette Peters works her musical magic at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual
Gala Concert. (Photos by J.D. Scott)

“There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” the hit song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” was one of the more unlikely choices on the menu at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s second annual Gala Concert to benefit its educational and community engagement programs. But the phrase is apt when it comes to Bernadette Peters, who performed with an ensemble of symphony players, because there is simply no one else like the 63-year-old Peters, Broadway’s reigning star for quite a while now.

Her classic good looks are well known. In fact, the only major problem I saw in her performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” was that -– according to the script of the show, which just ended on Broadway — she is supposed to be portraying a 49-year-old housewife, a former showgirl who has gone somewhat to seed. And that description doesn’t mesh at all with the glamorous figure on the stage.

Looks are nice. Well, very nice. But it is Peters’ voice that astounds you. It is as if she was born to sing Sondheim, perhaps Broadway’s last really great composer, and certainly its most cerebral. Her version of “Not a Day Goes By” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”) made her character’s pain so visceral that the audience was stunned. And that happens every time she sings it.

In “No One Is Alone” (from “Into the Woods”), she becomes the ultimate mother fantasy for everyone, reassuring us with a lullaby. Her “In Buddy’s Eyes” is a gentle love song that still manages, in the Sondheim way, to let us in on the deep problems within a relationship, and she communicates all of that with her voice.

She is always on pitch. Her high notes float over a room, and she manages always to give meaning to every word. Beyond the Sondheim numbers, she was at her best singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” the great ballad from “South Pacific.”

Although Peters is a flexible singer, there are some songs that work less well for her, such as “Fever,” made famous by Peggy Lee. Peters isn’t a rocker or a pop singer in the traditional sense; her voice thrives best when things slow down enough for her to show off its lustrous coloring and emotional range. She is a true “Broadway baby,” and what works best for her comes from this very special universe, one of America’s unique contributions to the world. Fortunately she knows this, and the concert was loaded with the right stuff.

Peters sings with perfect pitch.

The performance began with an overture of Broadway songs, uncredited but likely arranged by Marvin Laird, Peters’ longtime collaborator. (They first worked together in 1961, when she was 12 years old.) She opened with “Let Me Entertain You,” from Jule Styne’s “Gypsy” (with lyrics by Sondheim), and it was soon clear that there was a significant sound balance problem: too much orchestra, not enough Bernadette.

Peters and Laird are just getting back into the tour groove after a nine-month stint with “Follies” on Broadway, and their team might not have had time to sort things out. And Symphony Hall is not a room that’s kind to voices. But it seemed that a sound engineer simply needed to turn up her microphone.

Initially, her voice also sounded a little overprocessed, another problem that points to the sound board. Things were patched up a bit after that, only to recur with a vengeance in “Being Alive,” from Sondheim’s “Company.” Because of this problem, the songs that worked best were those where the accompaniment was subdued or consisted only of the piano, played sensitively by Laird.

Peters knows how to work a room, and she ventured into the audience a couple of times during the show. She prefers to introduce her songs from the stage rather than work from a printed program, and she does this like an old pro, even if some of her comedy material is a bit dated (I wonder how many times she’s tried to sell that vacation house to an audience). There was one major miscue, when she flubbed the entrance to “Nothing Like a Dame” and had to stop and restart, but she did it with professional grace.

For an encore she sang “Kramer’s Song,” a touching lullaby she composed for a children’s book she wrote. It was all great fun. It was a fine evening. And the audience left knowing that we’d been in the presence of a real artist. Sometimes that’s more than enough.

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