Petula Clark sprung from England in the swinging 60s and soared to the top of pop music charts. "Downtown " "I Know a Place," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" - the hits came easy.
Now there's the curly-haired gamine in sequins, successfully connecting with crowds who don't know what to expect from her at the Fontainebleau's La Ronde Superstar Theater. Being an unknown quantity has its advantages in this intimate setting. Petula plays upon them in a show of distracting excellence, daring variety and uncomplicated charm.
So the elements haven't been sorted out properly yet; still, the lass delivers an act worthy of a television extravaganza. The one-dimensional Top 40 tune days are far behind her. What flowers on the stage is a scamp in baggy pants with a Chaplinesque sense of humor; a little girl lost dressed in gingham out of The Wiz, and a sophisticated cabaret singer who's not afraid to break new ground.
The real Petula Clark, then, defies simple classification. She covers up a winsome shyness with self-deprecating jokes, and launches into a number "Why Not Petula?" that justifies the many unexpected shifts in her act. Because everyone from bump-and-grinding Tom Jones to the unpretentious singer before us needs a gimmick, she has several in this Ann-Margret parody song - a neon name sign; a slinky, one-shoulder gown; and the obligatory jumpsuited male dancers.
The peculiar aspect of all this is that, once the number's over, she continues to rely on lots of productions. Weaker, less confident singers may need the full cabaret artillery to wow an audience; Petula Clark doesn't.
Quickly dispensing with her hits in a medley, she advances into dreamier, more contemporary material. The lullaby-soft voice turns insistent with a ferociously good interpretation of Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name," and you know the lady isn't going to limit herself. A jolly fine English music hall routine sees Petula in a tattered outfit worthy of The Tramp. A clean segue into a picture memory of Great Britain, when the singer was a child and songs like "You'll Never Know" were popular - and another, pensive side is revealed.
She has no problems doing a wild version of "Fire and Rain," letting loose with a mad yell; a jaunty Beatles tribute; or a highly charged, explosively dramatic "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar.
But there's an imbalance, for all the ecstatic highs. As the singer later admits, she wanted to branch out from the staid go-out-and-sing-your-hits formula. OK, but we don't get enough of just Petula, surrounded as she is by lush orchestrations, three fine female singers, and Friends, the quarter of male singer-dancers. These four ex-athletes from San Jose, California are powerhouse entertainers who tend to overwhelm the tiny blonde Briton at center stage. Their driving, amiable eroticism, appealing though it is, shouldn't be competing with the subtle, demure star of the show.
This point is proved by the loveliest voicing of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" I've ever heard with Petula accompanied only by superb piano stylist Hugh Wheeler.