Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein

It is has taken more than four years for Bernadette Peters to follow up her Sondheim, Etc album and some might wish that the result had been something more unusual than an album of largely familiar standards from, arguably, the most popular writing team the musical theatre has ever seen. That said, Bernadette Peters can sing most theatre songs better than most theatre singers and doesn’t disappoint here. And, as the only contemporary bona fide star to have emerged from the musical stage (as opposed to the many who have found it a comfortable, temporary home between TV movies in recent years) it is perhaps only appropriate that she should be putting her own stamp on R&H in the year of Richard Rodgers’ centenary.

As is often the case with stars, Peters doesn’t really assume different characters as much as appear to reveal different aspects of her own with each performance. An audience knows what to expect from such an artist and that’s part of the reason they love her. This is not meant to be disparaging – Peters is undoubtedly up there in the pantheon with the Mermans and Martins and, perhaps uniquely amongst her contemporaries, shares their ability to enthrall audiences while appearing to expend very little effort on the task. Her performance as Dot in Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George – fearsomely intelligent, detailed and compelling and yet seeming purely instinctual – exemplifies this. It isn’t always a quality that transfers onto record but, fortunately, whatever it is that makes Peters great in the theatre survives almost intact here. And what a joy to have songs so often abused by lesser talents treated with such intelligence and care by a performer who also doesn’t feel the need to impress by showing us all the work that goes into it.

This is a very ‘traditional’ album – unlike recent projects by Peter’s contemporaries (Buckley, Lupone, latterly Audra McDonald) what we have here is almost universally familiar material, in conventional orchestral arrangements, delivered very much in the style its authors intended. So what makes this more than just another album of show tunes that your mom will enjoy? It’s back to that point about Bernadette Peters being the equal of the women (and men) who first sang these songs in the theatre. Nowadays, nobody does it better.

One disappointment is that there are few obscurities here – particularly in light of the fact that the two least familiar tunes (Allegro‘s ‘So Far’ and ‘I Haven’t Got A Worry In The World’, a song written for Anita Loos’ Happy Birthday) elicit two of the most sensitive performances. The sense of hope in the former and the quiet ecstasy of the latter are almost tangible. Elsewhere, Peters finds all the desperate passion she needs for ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and sings ‘Out Of My Dreams’ with a sense of wonder unmatched in other versions. On ‘The Gentleman Is A Dope’ she is bitter and anguished in the same phrase, making the song more than the camp cabaret throwaway it often becomes in other hands.

One or two of Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements could benefit from a lighter touch – on ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’ in particular his stately charts seem almost to be working in opposition to Peter’s attempt to swing the number – but, by and large, this is the real deal: great material, great singing. Buy with confidence.

-Mark Jennett

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