Peggy Lee is, and long has been, a bewitching songstress. But while she exercises her skills to the full in the show that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne, "Peg" is much more in the nature of a splendiferous supper club entertainment than a Broadway musical.
To call this a solo show would be a bit misleading, for ranged behind the star in full view throughout, whether behind a scrim or with it removed, is a large (some 30 pieces) orchestra of excellent quality with a topnotch jazz quartet (piano, bass, guitar, drums) at its core. I guess "staged concert" would be the more accurate term, since the soloist, when she isn't holding stage center (along with a white cordless mike that resembles a flashlight and that is never relinquished), drifts to one or the other of a pair of beige easy chairs placed on either side of the wide stage in Tom H. John's minimal setting.
Wearing a long white beaded gown and a hairband replaced by a silvery cloche in the second half, the star offers a skimpy, soapy account of her childhood and career both in narrative form and in song, the bulk of the musical numbers consisting of pieces with words by herself and music by Paul Horner. Here and there, happily, she sings numbers long associated with her, including songs ("I Don't Know Enough About You," "It's a Good Day" and "Manana") composed by her in collaboration with her first husband, the late guitarist Dave Barbour.
With the economy of gesture and seductive air long characteristic of her performing style, she runs through a couple of dozen selections with winning grace and good humor, though her material rarely rises above the commonplace. Lights flashing and the band riding high in a long intro, she makes her first appearance with "Fever," the song that has served her best over the years. And she brings the first half to a close with "Why Don't You Do Right?," the song that first drew attention to her when she was the vocalist with the Benny Goodman band.
In the second half, she presents, among other things, a catchy, Weill-like piece called "No More Rainbows," by herself and Horner; her swinging version of the Rodgers-Hart waltz "Lover"; "Big Spender," the arresting Dorothy Fields-Cy Coleman number from "Sweet Charity" (Coleman, by the way, served as "creative consultant" for "Peg"), and a pair of Jerry Lieber-Mike Stoller songs, "I Am Woman" and "Is That All There Is?," the latter a Lee hit that was initially recorded by Leslie Uggams.
The expert orchestrations are, in many instances, the original ones by such as Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman, Philip J. Lang and others.
But despite the excellence of the big band - and it was surely needed in a house this size - I was most comfortable in this intimate singer's presence with the superb trio, augmented by guest guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Grady Tate, in command from his drum platform, was flanked by Michael Renzi on piano and Jay Leonhart on bass, along with Pizzarelli. While "Peg" was undoubtedly inspired, in part, by Lena Horne's magnificent solo show of a couple of seasons ago, it should be taken into account that Horne's vibrant voice and personality were put to use in a smaller theater (the Nederlander), whereas Lee's coolly enticing presence is meant to fill what amounts to a cavern.
An army of what I took to be claqueurs at the press preview I attended rushed to the front at the end to shower the star with bouquets and words of love. And who am I to say they were not deserved? For, taken on her own terms, the lady is a splendid entertainer, demonstrating abilities heretofore undisclosed in an amusing passage about a law suit over the rights to the song "Manana," and put to even greater use in her description of a seedy Washington night club in which she appeared, and of Jimmy Durante's outraged visit ("What Did Dey Do to My Goil?").
One hesitates to apply the word comeback to an artist who in the hearts of many has never been away, but when Miss Peggy Lee, abundant in glitter, stepped onto the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last night to embark upon what she calls "a musical autobiography," Peg, the idea of comeback must have been at least waiting in the wings.
The 63-year-old has had a health problem - she has been paralyzed, temporarily lost her eyesight, and suffered some kind of speech impediment - this she tells us, at the end of the show.
And, justifiably, she tells us in triumph.
The show itself is a curious one. By no means could it be called a musical; it is more of a pop song cycle and could equally well take place in a concert hall as in a theater.
The setting by Tom H. John consists of nothing but a screen, two monumentally ugly twin chairs on each side of the stage, backed by some flowers and doodahs, all white.
It looks like a waiting room for an East Side Japanese dentist, and only lacks a rack of old magazines.
Robert Drivas' staging seems to require nothing more than Miss Lee moving from the chair stage left to the chair stage right, with some time spent in between. And oh, yes, occasionally a screen, which is fronting a large orchestra and back-up singers, opens and a musical quartet comes through on a trolley.
Theatrical it isn't, although Florence Klotz's two spangly costumes and two feather boas for Miss Lee are gorgeously glamorous.
Miss Lee - and no wonder considering what she has been through - is now rather more statuesque than animated, and at times she looks impressively like a pop Brunhilde looking for a Wagner opera to pop in.
Now, ideally I do not regard the theater as a concert-place. I have a strong preference for musicals to be musicals.
However, the solo concert with musical backing - remember the success of Lena Horne - is becoming increasingly popular, obviously with producers and, seemingly, with the public.
And when Miss Lee sings she still sings memorably. Incidentally, it is of memories she is singing. It is almost like a lieder recital, for people who would not normally go to lieder recitals.
Miss Lee is giving us a glimpse of her own life, from her birth as Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., where her "daddy was a railroad man," through her unhappy childhood with a wicked stepmother, and then through her struggles, triumphs and problems.
She sings warmly of the joys of her life, her husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, and her daughter. She is also frank about her love for Barbour (although the marriage fell apart because of his alcoholism), her three further desultory flings at matrimony, and her illness.
It is a chirpy story. And if some of the offstage voices give it an unfortunate air of: "Peggy Lee, THIS is Your Life," perhaps, given the material, this was unavoidable.
It is here that the music and singing count.
Most of the music is new and has been composed by Paul Horner, with lyrics by Miss Lee herself.
With vocal arrangements by Ray Charles, and Cy Coleman named as "Creative Consultant," the new music and the old hits segue in very neatly.
Horner clearly has a bent for Miss Lee's kind of songs, and Miss Lee's ear for a nifty lyric - such as with Manana and It's a Good Day!, which she wrote with Barbour, remains unimpaired.
The resultant score - hits and all, for she still also used Fever, Goody, Goody, Lover and her post-rock hits I'm a Woman and Is That All There Is? - offers a panoramic view of her terrific musicianship.
Miss Lee is an astonishing stylist. Her voice has changed somewhat, it is perhaps a little deeper, less bright and more resonant, but her musicianship is as effortless as ever.
Some pop singers - Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald drift to mind - are instruments as much as singers.
Here deft and often witty in her upbeat numbers, and glisteningly soulful in her more sentimental ballads, Miss Lee sings with a compelling intensity, and the kind of intimacy that suggests records around the fireside.
She refers to herself as "a strange child," and this is a strange evening. An obvious must for Peggy Lee fans, possibly a more questionable evening for less fortunate mortals. It is not a show, it is a concert. But as a concert it is quite a show. And fancy making your Broadway debut so cheerfully past the age of consent.
Dressed in a flowing gown of white and silver, her head crowned by a halo of glitter, Peggy Lee takes to the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne like a high priestess ascending an altar. And ''Peg,'' the ''musical autobiography'' that Miss Lee has brought to Broadway, is nothing if not a religious rite.
In this evening of song and chat, one of our premier pop singers presents herself as a spiritual icon. There is some entertainment in ''Peg,'' not to mention some striking musicianship, but the show is most likely to excite those who are evangelistically devoted to both Peggy Lee and God - ideally in that order.
For those who respect Peggy Lee as a vocalist but who don't worship her as a public personality, ''Peg'' may seem bizarre. Though this one- woman career retrospective vaguely resembles Lena Horne's in format, its tone and impact are vastly different. Unlike the more spontaneous Miss Horne, Miss Lee recites the blow-by-blow story of her life with great solemnity and saves many of her famous songs for a final medley. Roughly half of the numbers in ''Peg'' are new, designed to enshrine the red-letter events in the star's life.
Those events are not happy. Miss Lee has survived childhood whippings (musicalized in a song titled ''One Beating a Day''), her beloved first husband's bout with alcoholism and her own share of paralyzing (and unidentified) illnesses. All in all, it is remarkable that the singer has overcome so many hard knocks. But if the story Miss Lee tells is often courageous, the way she tells it is something else. In addition to sacrificing introspection for inspirational homilies (''God has never let me down''), the star regards her personal history from an omniscient and self-deifying perspective.
Sometimes Miss Lee speaks about herself in the third person, as when she breaks into self-authored verse to describe the birth of ''a child who would sing.'' (Her late father, represented by an amplified chorus singer's voice, then chimes in to describe his daughter's birth with sepulchral reverence.) At other times, Miss Lee's memory seems peculiarly selective: we hear more about her successful defense against a nuisance plagiarism suit than her career with Benny Goodman's band.
Many of the anecdotes sound as if they were long ago homogenized by press agents for mass dissemination through talk shows. Recalling her husband's death, the star focuses on the fact that she was toasting George Shearing at a party when she heard the sad news.
Tom H. John's set could serve Merv Griffin: Miss Lee often holds forth from one of two upholstered chairs that are backed by potted plants. Her manner can be just as blandly impersonal. Her speaking voice has few inflections, and her principal expression is a fixed, impassive smile. The gestures accompanying her singing are mechanical, as are her arm-raising acknowledgments of the audience's applause.
The new songs, in which Miss Lee's lyrics are usually set to Paul Horner's music, are professional, but only one, ''Daddy Was a Railroad Man,'' catches fire. The familiar numbers, from ''Fever'' to ''Is That All There Is?,'' are just as sparky as always. Though Miss Lee's voice is a small instrument, it is usually sure in pitch. Her rhythmic attack can't be beat.
The musicians who serve the star - even to the embarrassing extent of recounting her past kindnesses to fans - are first-rate. The show's crack conductor, Larry Fallon, leads a hard-driving big band and small chorus. The quartet at center stage includes some frequent associates of such other top singers as Miss Horne and Mel Torme: Mike Renzi (piano), Grady Tate (drums), Jay Leonhart (bass) and Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar). The orchestrations, by such illustrious hands as Billy May and Larry Wilcox (among many others), and the sound system, credited to Jan Nebozenko and the record producer Phil Ramone, are way above usual Broadway standards.
''Peg'' was directed by Robert Drivas, presumably with the assistance of the ''creative consultant'' Cy Coleman. The staging is efficient, but these experienced theater men can only take their star so far. The Lunt- Fontanne is a large house that requires a huge theatrical personality to dominate it. Lacking so sizable a presence, Miss Lee has let her ego inflate to fill the gap.