Bernadette Peters exudes diffidence.
Perhaps the Kewpie-doll prettiness, the comic innocence, the famous voice that trails off like a plume of smoke isn't just a persona that Peters has carefully cultivated during nearly six decades of performing.
It's just possible that the award-winning Broadway performer, the quintessential interpreter of Stephen Sondheim, the actress with the astonishing range underestimates herself.
Forget Peters' two Tony Awards and five other nominations. Forget that she originated two of Sondheim's most singular women: Dot in Sunday in the Park With George and the Witch in Into the Woods. Forget her three Drama Desk Awards (out of eight nominations), the four cast albums in which she was featured that won Grammys, her Golden Globe Award (out of three nominations) and the Emmy buzz that followed her recent guest performance in an episode of ABC's Grey's Anatomy. While you're at it, forget Peters' best-selling children's book, Broadway Barks, and forget that a CD for which she composed a song accompanies the book.
No one seems more astonished at this glittering list of accomplishments than the performer herself.
"All of this is pretty amazing to me," she says. "I'm just taking opportunities as they present themselves. If you had told me a few years ago that I was going to write a children's book or compose a lullaby, I'd have said you were crazy."
Peters will be in Baltimore on Saturday to perform a benefit concert for The Chimes, an agency that helps children and adults with disabilities - a cause close to the performer's heart. She will perform a mix of Sondheim standards ("Children Will Listen" and "No One Is Alone") and Americana ("When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Shenandoah").
"My friends have a permanently disabled child, a 13-year-old girl," Peters says.
"These children are my heroes. They have restrictions on their bodies, but they get up every day and go about their lives. Gabriella can't speak and she can't walk, but she still goes around with a big smile. That," Peters says, and then repeats the word for emphasis, "That is an accomplishment."
The actress born Bernadette Lazarra has been in show business since 1951, when she was 3 years old and her mother placed her on a television program called Juvenile Jury. Peters (who later changed her name to avoid ethnic stereotyping) had her Actors' Equity card by age 9, worked steadily throughout high school and earned critical acclaim at age 20, when she starred in the play Dames at Sea.
She has a pure, powerful voice, and can shape a phrase into something both flexible and substantial. Sondheim has praised her as one of the rare performers who can simultaneously act and sing, instead of doing each skill in turn. Her bow mouth, cascade of ringlets and, above all, her air of comic guilessness are reminiscent of the late, great Judy Holliday.
Still, Peters is 60. So far, so good, but not even the finest musical instrument lasts forever. Peters hasn't appeared on Broadway since 2003, when she did a bravura star turn in Gypsy.
It's natural to wonder if an actress so gifted has considered tackling nonmusical classics. Wouldn't she be marvelous in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as Titania, the queen of the Fairies, who falls in love with Bottom, a man with the head of a donkey?
The performer seems momentarily taken aback. Then she admits to being intimidated by the classics.
"A few years ago, I played an actress who was appearing in a play by Chekhov, and it scared me to death," she says. "I ended up taking a class in Chekhov just to get over my fear. I didn't finish the class, but I loved it."
Surely, any performer who has navigated the intricacies of Sondheim is up to tackling the Old Masters. After all, there aren't many roles more demanding than that of Gypsy's quintessential stage monster, Mama Rose. (Jule Styne wrote Gypsy's music, but Sondheim wrote the lyrics.)
"Playing that role was the most in-depth, self-actualization therapy," Peters says. "I cured myself of so many things. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, I was a child in show-biz, and my mother, like hers, had a large personality. But, I wasn't playing my mother. I approached Mama Rose from many different angles."
After a moment, Peters returns to the larger question.
"I was thinking that I should start reading the classics," she says. "There is music in Chekhov and Shakespeare, in the rhythms of speech. And in the back of my mind, I've always wanted to do the drug-addicted mother in O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night.
"So, maybe I'll have to think about it. Who knows? I'm on a journey."
IF YOU GO
The Bernadette Peters Benefit Concert for The Chimes is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $275-$500. Call 410-358-7774 or go to chimes.org.