by Bill Kaufman
It has been just short of a decade since Peggy Lee has performed in an intimate cabaret setting, an absence that will be made up for Wednesday, when the silky-voiced singer opens at the Ballroom in Manhattan Chelsea district. She’ll be there for a four-week engagement through August 3.
As many Lee fans will attest, perhaps the most satisfying way to enjoy her is in cabaret style, where a close relationship between performer and audience quickly generates the magic. For these purists, such tasty Lee classics as “Mañana,” “Fever” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” somehow always seem to work their wonders better against a backdrop where there is smoke, the clink of glasses and crowded tables.
“I’m terribly excited. What I’m mostly excited about – a dream of mine – is being able to keep the quintet together,” said Lee the other day. She was referring to her taut, ever-present group led by pianist Mike Renzi, which features Grady Tate on drums. Lee said her new show runs in two acts with an intermission. “It’s not the way I used to usually perform. I treat it as a sort of a theater experience,” she said, describing previous club acts in which she sang an unbroken set of numbers. In addition to appeasing her admirers with a batch of her oldies, she has brought some new musical merchandise into the inventory. “I sing a song in Japanese, ‘The Red Dragonfly,’ which I picked up over there. I may do a country song and may even include something in French,” she said.
Lee said her most recent projects include a video disk for the British market, and something that’s apparently important to her – making long-range plans “to eventually come back to Broadway again.” She starred in Peg, the short-lived autobiographical musical on Broadway two years ago that not only featured songs but a narrative about her early, troubled-wrecked life. These days, she has been busy with a hectic schedule of concert hall dates, including shows in Japan and England. But her last New York cabaret gig was almost 10 years ago when she played the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room. “It’s always special for me to come back and play New York. I’ve got a lot of dear friends there,” Lee said.