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Barbara Cook: In a Sondheim Mood

Date: 2000-11-06
author: Barbara & Scott Seigel

Having stunned the cabaret world with her departure from The Café Carlyle, Barbara Cook recently opened her new show Barbara Cook: In Good Company at her classy new digs, Feinstein's at The Regency. On the night we attended, a house full of fans sat in rapturous silence, taking in her every note, so the change of venue seems to be working. And, of course, so is that golden soprano of Cook's. Though at one point in her show she revealed her secret method for hitting a B-natural and admitted that the note no longer comes easily, her voice continues to sound youthful. At the same time, her taste is happily mature?which is to say tasteful. Working with her longtime musical director and pianist, the superb Wally Harper, Cook has fashioned a new act centered on the work of Stephen Sondheim and that of the songwriters Sondheim most admires. This smartly conceived show has a finely tuned balance between challenging material and crowd-pleasing fare.

The lady begins with Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't," a phrase that might be interpreted as a warning to singers who attempt to perform this composer-lyricist's complex creations. But Cook has an unerring instinct that leads her to the fulcrum of each song, where she finds its pivotal musical truth. For instance, when she sings "Happiness" from Passion, she digs beneath the delight found in the lyrics to mine the subtext of the song. Sticking with Passion, she then segues to "Loving You," and the unadorned beauty of her voice coupled with the honest simplicity of her interpretation makes this ballad of obsession utterly heartbreaking. Combining "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along and "Losing My Mind" from Follies, Cook tells the whole story of a love affair. She sings both songs with such humanity that you feel as if you're peering into the soul of a woman whose emotions have ricocheted from love and desire to abject loneliness and despair.

Sondheim has often written songs about the darker aspects of life. This, however, is not Barbara Cook's métier. Consider that the number most associated with her is "Ice Cream" from She Loves Me?which of course, she sang in the show's original Broadway production. She sings it at Feinstein's as well, joking that this number is her choice, not Sondheim's. In fact, at least half of the songs she offers are among those, which Sondheim did not write but has said that he wishes he had. Many of these have a lighter, more traditionally romantic feel to them, and they are therefore more in the line of material for which Cook is best known. She brings heat and passion to "I Had Myself A True Love" (Arlen-Harburg) and a yielding romanticism to "I Got Lost In His Arms" (Irving Berlin). She stays right on track with her exuberant rendition of "The Trolley Song" (Martin-Blaine) but is derailed by a long, ill-suited medley that includes "Hard-Hearted Hannah" (Yellen-Ager-Bigelow-Bates), a raucous song more appropriately sung by Julie Wilson. That minor quibble aside, this is a winning show that does justice to Sondheim and adds glory to Cook. on a former lover. The singer pointedly introduced the medley as "the Kentucky point of view on lost love."