After more than 60 years performing at the highest levels on stage and screen, the great Bernadette Peters has an instinctive ability to connect.
Asked about her performance history here on the islands, she said, “I’ve been to every island, except for Kauai. Isn’t that the Garden Island? I won’t make it there this time, but I will have to get there someday.”
She’ll appear Saturday at the grand Hawaii Theatre Center, an ideal backdrop for Peters’ wide-ranging, evocative style of vocal performance, presenting songs from Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein and other great composers from the Great White Way.
Her most recent Broadway appearance was in “Hello Dolly.” Peters followed Bette Midler in reviving the musical role between February and July of 2018.
“I am doing the songs I sang in ‘Hello, Dolly’ last year,” Peters said. “It’s all kinds of wonderful music.
“I do all the things that I sang in shows, but I also love to do things that other people have done,” she said. “As I’m sitting in the wings hearing these songs, I think, ‘Ooh, that’s a good song, I’d love to do that one.
Peters has star quality in virtually all aspects of the craft, with piercing, powerful voice and acting skills that make you believe in her character while reveling her potent presence. And she particularly enjoys doing concerts, she said.
“When I do a concert, there’s no ‘fourth wall,’ so you get to say whatever you want, and you get to choose what you want to sing, and you can express yourself the way you feel,” she said.
”It’s really a privilege to be able to do it.”
Peters still sings in the same tremendous range that she has always had, and still has that broad range of colors.
Her voice can be clear as a bell in Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” or luscious and beckoning in Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Or she’ll sing with a slight rasp, as heard in her speaking voice, which over the phone sounds friendly and warm.
After all this time, she said her voice even surprises her.
“Isn’t it strange that it works that way?” she said. “I don’t really think about it, but it just kind of happens whenever I’m working on a song.
“My mother had a husky voice, and I grew up listening to her. And then she had nodes on her vocal chords, so I heard that too.”
PETERS WAS born in the borough of Queens in New York City as Bernadette Lazzara, but started using Peters — her father’s first name is Peter — as a stage name as a child actor to avoid ethnic typecasting as an Italian.
Even as a child, she had broad exposure to stage and screen, appearing in Hallmark and Kraft television productions in the 1950s, as well as on and off-Broadway.
But Broadway had changed from the days when entire productions were essentially created as star vehicles for the likes of Ethel Merman or Angela Lansbury. So in the ’70s she took off for Los Angeles to expand her career.
She appeared in top television series like “All in the Family” and “Maude,” on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and in films like “The Jerk” and “Impromptu.”
Her dancing skill contributed to her casting in the 1981 movie “Pennies from Heaven,” elegantly pairing her in sequences with Steve Martin, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (helped along by a bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand), and she can still move and swing, as her performance in “Dolly” proved.
After a few years’ absence, Broadway called her back with the role she is perhaps most remembered for, as Dot/Marie in “Sunday in the Park with George.” The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, premiered on Broadway in 1984, with Mandy Patinkin co-starring as artist George Seurat.
As Dot, Peters played the young mistress of Seurat in the first act, set in the late 1800s. She then transforms into Marie, Dot’s daughter — an old woman in the second act, telling Seurat’s story of artistic struggle nearly a century later.
The clarity and emotion Peters brought to Sondheim’s songs for “Sunday in the Park with George,” considered some of his finest, earned her consideration as a foremost interpreter of his work. The composer himself would call Peters’ style “flawless.”
One incident in particular shows how closely attuned she was with Sondheim’s work.
“I remember once I forgot the words to a song, but I just kept going and making things up, kept going, and somehow I ended up in the right place and with the right words,” said Peters. “He came up to me afterwards and said ‘I couldn’t do what you do just did. I couldn’t make up words like that.’”
Peters’ performance was immortalized when the production appeared on public television in 1986, exposing her talent to a national audience.
That year, Peters took her first Tony for best lead actress in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance,” winning again in 1999 for “Annie Get Your Gun.”
In addition to her recent appearance on “Hello Dolly,” Peters recently appeared on Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” and CBS’ “The Good Fight.” She also just finished shooting a film that is still under wraps.
At 71, she continues to take voice lessons from the same coach that she had during her “Sunday in the Park” days and took a tip from fellow actor David Hyde Pierce, with whom she appeared on “Hello Dolly,” to learn the Alexander Technique, a series of postural exercises employed by many actors and singers.
“I’m always learning, I’m always trying to get better,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about — learning and growing, and that’s what I love to do.”
BROADWAY FAVORITES CONCERT
Featuring Bernadette Peters
>> Where: Hawaii Theatre Center
>> When: 8 p.m. Saturday
>> Cost: $79-$130; $500 VIP
>> Info: 528-0506, hawaiitheatre.com