Cabaret: A performance of two halves

BERNADETTE PETERS ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LONDON

IN THE famous "gay" episode of thirtysomething, a closeted man turned to a prospective boyfriend, pointed to a framed photo on his desk and whispered: "They don't know... they think I'm married to Bernadette Peters."

Having your name used as the punchline to a joke on national TV might be regarded as some kind of career high, but on Thursday night there was another hill to be climbed when Bernadette Peters made her London debut.

In the end, it turned out to be surprisingly easy. All she did was walk onstage, and the crowd went, well, nuts. Standing ovations tend to happen at the end of a performance, but this audience was simply dying to tell the diva how much they loved her for her knockout performances on the original cast albums of Mack and Mabel, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods.

The voice is unique. To be honest, in terms of pure sound, it's a mess. It is desperately uneven, rich and vibrant on certain notes, and thin on others.

She can go from husky low tones to a heady top range, but the gear change isn't exactly synchromeshed.

All of which is somewhat beside the point. It's the expressive qualities she builds from these technical limitations that makes Peters so distinctive. Like Judi Dench, she uses the roughness and the haunting crack in the voice to truly emotional effect.

Bare-shouldered, sheathed in something floor-length and sparkly, she's big on tight little wriggles, working those saucer-sized eyes and treading a line between self-love and self-mockery.

With her peek-a-boo lips and a torrent of red ringlets framing her heart- shaped face and cascading down her back, she looks like a mermaid in shoes. She is also, in an age of popular singers who take themselves frighteningly seriously, a musical comedy performer.

She purred, crooned and dripped mischievousness, sprawled across a grand piano singing "Sooner or Later" from Sondheim's score for Dick Tracy, then donned evening gloves to smoulder Bette Midler-style through a wickedly funny, cha-cha rhythm "Making Love Alone" about the kind of love that fits hand in glove: "Who can describe/ The special sweetness/ Of knowing you're going/ The speed that is right?"

The best material was in the second half which was devoted to Sondheim. However, as the evening progressed through its two-and-a-half hours (plus interval), we quickly began to hit the law of diminishing returns.

Too many of Marvin Laird's arrangements not only exposed her mannerisms, they also allowed her to wring every last piece of emotion out of every single word she sang, which in the end had the reverse effect. Yes, the exquisite ache of "Not a Day Goes By" is expressed in the lyric, but the emotional effect relies on the constant flow of the harmonies, played through the quietly relentless rhythm. Break it up, and the song collapses.

At full pelt she is quite something. "Being Alive" was unadorned and stunning. Best of all was a driven "Some People" from Gypsy which set the place on fire: no messing, just singing. In this case, less really is more.

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