Tom Strini

Barbara Cook, queen of NY cabaret, at Alverno College

Barbara Cook, Broadway's ingenue of the 1950s, can still deliver the American songbook.

By - Oct 7th, 2012 02:43 am
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Barbara Cook in London, 2008. Mike Martin photo courtesy of Barbara Cook’s website.

Barbara Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951, and went on to create two of the greatest ingenue roles in musical theater: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, in 1956, and Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, in 1957.

Cook, soon to be 85, sang in Milwaukee Saturday night. Her Alverno Presents concert reflects Cook’s career turn after her ingenue days ended. Cook recorded, appeared in shows now and then, and sang orchestra dates, but first and foremost she became the grand dame of New York cabaret. She has held forth for decades at the genre’s most prestigious venues.

She’s generally stuck to Broadway tunes, from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim, in her cabaret career. Saturday, she spoke of going outside that range during this tour. She did, a bit, most notably with an off-mike rendering of John Lennon’s Imagine and an a cappella  House of the Rising Sun. Cook threw herself completely into these intensely personal songs, turning the first into a prayer and the second into a confessional, both touchingly ingenuous (but in no way ingenue).

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Barbara Cook as Cunegonde in “Candide,” 1956. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

A sparkling soprano with dazzling coloratura was Cook’s calling card back in the day. That voice, of course, is largely gone, supplanted by a more vernacular instrument that tips the gravelly passage of time. But every now and then Saturday, sometimes for just a word or two, Cook kicked into that operetta-soprano mode. It was as if a beam of golden light set the Pitman Theater ablaze for a moment or two.

That sound occupied a special place among the amazing range of vocal colors at Cook’s disposal. She can be a husky belter or a delicate chanteuse or a gleaming soprano, and everything in between. Cook doesn’t decide on a color and stick with it; she paints phrase by phrase, even word by word sometimes, and with penetrating expressive purpose. She even put the fraying of age to good use, as poignant groans. Love hurts, sometimes.

Cook invoked Ella Fitzgerald as inspiring her to take on Ram Ramirez’s Lover Man. In one of her more charming stories, Cook spoke of running across Ella’s version on YouTube — a favorite topic all evening — playing it over and over, and finally singing along. But her silken sound and feline phrasing Saturday brought Lena Horne, not Ella, to mind.

Her specific coloration and utterly clear enunciation make you hang on every word in a number such as Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. She did it almost as recitative and made every word count. Cook was and is a very good actress. Here she played a character at first astonished at discovering that the excitement she feels has nothing to do with the pale moon. She goes on to express a deepening warmth and joy at this revelation of something deeper than mere romance. Cook made those sentiments feel beautiful, deep and true.

She jumped immediately into the cynical mischief of Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s Makin’ Whoopee, a Roaring ’20s naughty number. Cook dusted off the even naughtier second and third sets of lyrics, which I’d never heard before. She stumbled over a word or two, but it was easy to fill in the blanks. Did you know that people had sex back then, without even being married?

Cook isn’t really a jazz singer. She scats only when she forgets the words and takes only modest liberties with the songwriters’ melodies. But she can swing with the best of them, and she brought real jazz guys with her: pianist/music director Ted Rosenthal, bassist Jay Leonhart, reed man Victor Goines and drummer Dana Hill. Together, they locked into satisfying jazz grooves on several occasions, notably on verses two and three of Makin’ Whoopee and It Had to Be You.

Cook spent perhaps too much of her 90-minute set on rambling, intermittently engaging stories about show business, her nerves at taking on this music (frankly, to me a leap from Irving Berlin to Hoagy Carmichael didn’t seem so daring) and her fascination with YouTube. She sometimes lost the thread, but no one minded. Cook was so cheerful about it all, and happy to frankly ask Rosenthal to get her back on track, that these potentially annoying tangents had an odd charm about them.

In any case, Cook has earned our indulgence, with a long, extraordinary career and with the 18 songs she sang so beautifully Saturday. How will she celebrate her 85th birthday, on Oct. 18? By giving a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Next up at Alverno Presents: Fiasco Theater’s Cymbeline.

Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD Guide to the 2012-13 season. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera.

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