Here’s what the Florida Orchestra didn’t get with Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman: A guest of honor seductively whispering out Fever from the top of a Steinway grand.
“I’ve always wanted to do this one,” Bernadette Peters said before scaling the piano Saturday night at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. "But it’s my first time, so please be gentle.”
Peters was a new sort of headliner for the orchestra’s annual gala, a Hollywood star and two-time Tony winner (three if you count her lifetime achievement award) who filled the Mahaffey with comic charm and Broadway razzle-dazzle.
Backed by the orchestra — all snapping along on Fever — and her own jazz trio, she tossed her auburn curls and kicked up her heels as she sang the hits of the Great White Way’s greatest, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Jerry Herman and, of course, Stephen Sondheim.
The unique comic charm that made Peters a Broadway and film star was on full display during Hello, Dolly!'s sis-boom-bah So Long Dearie, where she spun and snapped until she was breathless.
But the closer she got to the audience — and she did get close, wandering down from the stage to lock eyes with and serenade fans during a couple of songs — the more she utilized the tiniest movements to make an impact. A twitch of her lips, a flutter of her eyelashes — those are the quirks and tics that made her pop on the silver screen, too.
But Peters’ forte is Sondheim; she’s starred in several of his Broadway musicals. She offered songs shows she starred in (Into the Woods’ No One Is Alone and Children Will Listen, Follies’ lush and emotive In Buddy’s Eyes and Losing My Mind, Gypsy’s gleefuly showbizzy Let Me Entertain You) and others she simply admired (Anyone Can Whistle’s With So Little to Be Sure Of). The best: Her whiz-bang fireworks version of Company’s Being Alive that put Adam Driver’s Marriage Story piano-bar version to shame; and a version of A Little Night Music’s Send In the Clowns delivered with such impossible pin-drop intimacy that it felt like you were there in the recording booth.
Conductor Michael Francis and the orchestra didn’t have to do much but keep up, although cellist James Connors shone during the beautiful No One Is Alone, and Robert Smith offered a lovely muted trumpet on When You Wish Upon a Star.
And Francis? During the playfully provocative There is Nothin’ Like a Dame, Peters, operating with full va-va-voom vivacity, hopped up on the podium and gave the conductor a big hug. Down went the baton as Francis mugged for the crowd.
“I got a little hot,” he admitted afterward.
Yeah, you don’t get that with Itzhak or Yo-Yo.