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Bernadette Peters

Taking the stage in a sequined, strapless Bob Mackie gown, her impossible pile of golden curls ringing a pale moon face that seems permanently beyond the reach of passing time, Bernadette Peters opened her solo show at Universal Amphitheatre with a Sondheim classic, "Broadway Baby," that might have been written for her, so perfectly does it suit her inimitable voice, a potent mixture of kittenish squeak and belting brass. In a 2-1/2-hour concert rich with highlights, Peters rolled with unaffected enthusiasm through the West Coast debut of a show she bowed at Carnegie Hall in December (and which is now available on a live CD). The show's first act was a grab bag of songs that ranged from the sober emotion of "No One Is Alone" from "Into the Woods" all the way to the burlesque novelty number "Making Love Alone," a paean to self-pleasuring originally performed on "Saturday Night Live" which comes off infinitely better onstage than on recording, with Peters giving full rein to its tongue-in-cheek dramatics. She's the rare singer who can pull herself up to full diva emotionalism with utter conviction, and turn around and poke fun at the pose a few tunes later.

With:
orchestra conducted by Marvin Laird. Dancers: Jim Stone, Timothy Smith, David Engel, Larry Rabin.

The plaintive power of “Time Heals Everything,” from Jerry Herman’s “Mack and Mabel,” was among the non-Sondheim highlights of the theater music (while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s overblown “Unexpected Song” found Peters in dangerously high vocal territory at the close), and J.D. Souther’s “Faithless Love,” delivered with quiet simplicity, was the lone inclusion from Peters’ absolutely first-rate new country-rock CD.

The first act closed with the Sondheim-Styne “Some People,” which Peters gave the full-pizzazz treatment it demands. But for all her vocal power, Mama Rose Peters ain’t; she exudes a sweetness that the legendary character would trample on, taking a full five minutes to introduce and recount the accomplishments of the four dancers who joined her for just one number (the somewhat drippy “Raining in My Heart” from “Dames at Sea”).

Act two was an eclectic collection culled from the Sondheim canon, which gave it a shapeliness the first act’s variety didn’t allow. Peters was at her comically charming best in a medley from “Into the Woods” (“Hello Little Girl/Any Moment”), playing the wolf with gusto. She brought the requisite elegance to the haunting “Johanna” from “Sweeney Todd,” and the quiet ache of “Not a Day Goes By” was rendered with almost palpable emotion. From “Company” came the snazzier “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and the de rigueur “Being Alive.” Show closed appropriately with “Move On,” a tune from “Sunday in the Park With George,” in which Peters starred.

The Universal Amphitheatre crowd was devoted, but a smaller venue would have accommodated all comers and brought a little more intimacy. With luck, she’ll come back without the sequins and heels, and play a club date that would show she brings as much authentic style to honky-tonk rock as she does to the higher-brow theatrics of Sondheim.

Bernadette Peters

Universal Amphitheatre; 6,250 seats; $53 top

Production: Presented by Universal Amphitheatre

Cast: orchestra conducted by Marvin Laird. Dancers: Jim Stone, Timothy Smith, David Engel, Larry Rabin.

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