Long live Bernadette: Theatre Royal, Sydney

Bernadette Peters wants to talk about Peter Allen.

It’s an easy, instant connection to make with her Australian audience – she loved him, and so did, collectively, all of us – and she sang ‘If You Were Wondering’ late into her set at the Theatre Royal, imbuing the number with her natural instinct for lyrical intention.

Bernadette Peters in concert
Bernadette Peters in Sydney. Image by Kurt Sneddon

There is something that happens when Bernadette Peters sings. She moves into her songs, builds them like a cottage around herself and burrows into them. Sondheim is one of the greatest contemporary architect of show tunes, and Bernadette one of his muses; together they create shelters within which it’s okay (or possibly imperative) to be vulnerable. Bernadette sings ‘Losing My Mind’ and it’s heartbreaking. Bernadette sings ‘Send in the Clowns’ and there’s a fragile kind of pragmatism in her performance – a famous song placed carefully back into its original context.

Maybe that’s one of the most rewarding things about a Bernadette Peters concert. She handpicks her favourite songs but she doesn’t strip them of their narrative function. She continues to act her songs, giving her audiences three or four minutes in Into the Woods before sliding over to Follies or Company. Somehow it becomes less about Bernadette, the Diva, and more about the shows and the work.

Yet you never can really divorce Bernadette from the Diva. It’s in her bones by now, the confidence of owning a stage, the sultry cover version of ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame’ she has perfected down to the timing of each swing of hip or strategic show of leg. It’s in the hand thrust straight and unwavering in the air to punctuate ‘Fever’ in the eponymous song. It’s in her comfort on stage, her unfazed acknowledgement of the sound of a passing train infiltrating the Royal stage. It’s in a toss of the head and a look. Bernadette is beloved and knows it – but she never discredits the work, never does disservice to the songs by placing herself above their origins and intent (except maybe in an indulgent ‘Being Alive’).

Bernadette Peters is a cerebral performer – she is prepared and polished and perfect – and because of this, when moments of joy come from her songs they feel both disarming and earned; she sings ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ and the gentleness and warmth in her tone is like being wrapped in a blanket.

It’s because of this strategy balanced with honest, emotional performance, this journey we take with one of the greats, that means when Bernadette returns to Peter Allen for her curtain call, it starts to feel less like a conscious programming choice for the Australian tour and settles into something more like a tribute to a friend. Bernadette sang ‘I Honestly Love You’ tenderly, honestly, and the moment moved her to tears; it was clear she was singing to Peter Allen.

That curtain call was Bernadette Peters in a nutshell: Polished, rich-voiced, and full of a very real emotional clarity. Long live Bernadette.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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