By MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & he's like Streisand without the moral earnestness -- and without the same pipes, though with more in the way of onstage sass. She's the pre-eminent interpreter of the late-20th-century American musical theater's pre-eminent composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. And she was funny playing opposite Steve Martin in The Jerk.
Oh, and she hates being called "Bernie." Yet somehow, at least for musical theater fans, Bernadette Lazzara -- the stage name was meant to fend off ethnic stereotyping -- seems comforting and familiar, the girl next door who sings like an angelic chorus. (The rescue-dog program she runs? It's called "Broadway Barks" -- and oh my goodness, she runs it alongside fellow All-American Mary Tyler Moore.)
But Peters has also created a long list of treasured Broadway performances: The Witch in Into the Woods. The title role in Annie Get Your Gun. Dot (Georges Seurat's model and love interest) in Sunday in the Park With George. Title billing (opposite Robert Preston) in Jerry Herman's Mack & amp; Mabel. Mama Rose in Gypsy.
When I approached local actors, singers and directors with a question -- "Have any questions for Bernadette Peters? Because I may get an interview with her" -- first their eyes got big, and then they started jumping up and down and hyperventilating.
(The interview fell through. Bernadette's so busy, even her publicist doesn't know where she is, or even how to reach her. There's all that traveling to concerts, you see. A lot of people want to hear Bernadette Peters sing.)
But why are so many people queuing up to hear a 5-foot-3 woman from Ozone Park in Queens stand on a stage and belt out old-fashioned show tunes?
Well, judging from the local actors' questions, they respect her for her attention to detail (perfect diction, perfect notes), longevity (a four-decade Broadway career) and her inventive, constantly renewing interpretation of lyrics. Sondheim himself has praised Peters for acting while she's singing (as opposed to so many singers, who belt the tune and fill the rest of their time onstage with facial expressions).
When you devote the bulk of your career to live performances onstage and in the concert hall, you live in people's memories - and not so much on celluloid. None of Peters' movies -- Pennies From Heaven, Silent Movie, Impromptu, The Longest Yard, The Jerk and a dozen others -- has been a blockbuster. Her TV work has included guest spots on Will & amp; Grace, Ally McBeal and Frasier, and there has been lots of voiceover work. But few recurring roles.
A couple of her six solo albums -- devoted to Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the rest of the Great American Songbook -- have been recorded, fittingly, live in Carnegie Hall. But divas singing show tunes captivate niches, not general audiences. Her many cast albums record her part in ensembles, but they appeal primarily to theater fans.
Bernadette Peters shines most, then, in live performance -- backed by an orchestra and projecting those high notes and emotions all the way up to the musical junkie in the second balcony's last row. On Saturday night, she'll sing songs from musicals, songs from Tin Pan Alley, songs of disappointed love, songs of self-reliance. Her talent blazes like gunfire, but her art's in the moment, and then it's gone.
Bernadette Peters will appear with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 pm. Tickets: $23-$53. INB Center, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Visit www.spokanesymphony.org or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.