By Ron Fassler . . . 

Broadway veteran Kurt Peterson, a part of the original cast of Follies (in addition to a host of other musicals), offered a one-man show Monday evening that he has dubbed “a memoir concert.” Performed for one-night only at Merkin Hall in the Kaufman Center on New York’s Upper West Side and titled Proud Ladies, the two-act program is a personal tribute (by way of autobiography) to the more than two dozen women who have played different roles in making him the man he is today. And at age seventy-four he still possesses a boyish charm and a sweet soul. Though now silver haired, he remains handsome and, if I may say so, dashing. He also exudes a genuineness that can’t be faked. Peterson’s charming trip down memory lane is told in a non-linear manner with enough anecdotes to keep any Broadway aficionado not only entertained but begging for more.

Weaving parts of two dozen songs throughout the evening, Peterson knows his way around the notes as well as how to make the most of one’s instrument. As the owner of The Voice Studio in Manhattan, he has helped many actors find their way towards telling stories in song, which is exactly what Proud Ladies is all about. He has also been a prolific producer of everything from plays to concerts to record albums. He was the first person to put together a Sondheim concert (and what a concert it was). Thankfully preserved on a two-record set and affectionately dubbed “The Scrabble Album,” every true theater fan is familiar with this 1973 one-night only event at the Shubert Theatre which, to this day, defines the way to produce a Broadway tribute. His reminiscences about that night are all in the show, especially concerning the contributions of Donna McKechnie (a former girlfriend) and Nancy Walker, whose rendition of “I’m Still Here” blew almost every other performer off the stage (no easy trick). Ethel Merman, who invited herself to be part of that Sondheim tribute, is represented throughout Proud Ladies by way of phone messages she left on Peterson’s answering machine (voiced by the brilliant Christine Pedi). “I hear you’re doing a show about Steve. I should sing ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.’ He didn’t write it, but I know he loves the way I do it.”

Laura Benanti, Betty Buckley, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo, Rebecca Luker, Bernadette Peters, Kelli O’Hara and Elaine Stritch are some of the women who made lasting impressions on Peterson. The impressive thing is that even though most of the stories are about the importance of friendship, he doesn’t leave out the times those friendships went sour or when he did someone wrong. He’s honest about his ups and downs in the business; and the time he tells of nearly committing suicide while high on drugs is a chance to offer his sincerest thanks to one of the most important woman in his life, Carol Demas (the actress who created the role of Sandy in Grease). It’s very beautiful when Peterson, now in his senior years, takes the time to properly thank so many women for each ineffable thing they did for him to make his career in the theater possible. 

Stephenie Skyllas, Kurt Peterson and Claire-Frances Sullivan

Though there isn’t really a “take no prisoners” attitude to this memoir concert, he does save some spicy language for one of his co-stars along the way, Patti LuPone. Towards the end, while recapping the different life lessons he’s been taught, his delivery of “and Patti… I still don’t know what I learned from you” was one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Peterson’s rendition of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” with lovely accompaniment from Ray Kilday on bass and Peter Sachon on cello, was a highlight as was “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” Hoagy Carmichael’s achingly beautiful ballad. Ian Herman was the conductor and pianist, and Ray Marchica worked the drums. Each song makes a specific statement and the variety and depth do not go unnoticed. The director, Lisa Asher, seems very much in sync with Peterson. Slides projected throughout were helpful and never upstaged the main attraction.

The person who taught him “class” was, ironically, Angela Lansbury who died less than twenty-four hours after his concert. He did the musical Dear World with her, and they had a very close relationship. The story he told was about the single note he received from her during their entire time together. It was handwritten and delivered by the stage manager. It simply said, “Please ask Mr. Peterson to see that he is less generous with the garlic he ingests prior to performance.”

Class, indeed. And Kurt Peterson learned from the best.

Kurt Peterson’s in memoir concert “Proud Ladies” was performed on October 10 at Merkin Hall at the Kauman Music Center (129 West 67th Street) in New York City.

Photos: Jeff Harnar