Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook
Between the songs in her kinda terrific Mostly Sondheim celebration, Barbara Cook tells a few jokes of which she's the butt. In one, she recalls that, when she played Lincoln Center 30 years ago in an adaptation of Maxim Gorki's Enemies, John Simon wrote something along the lines of: "Now that she can't sing anymore, she's trying to act."

Of course, the joke is really on Simon. In the ensuing decades, with Wally Harper smiling and supportive at the piano, Cook has continued to show the world not only how well she can sing but also how ineffably well she can act. She always could. When she was young and lithe and gracing first- and second-rate musicals like Flahooley, The Music Man, Candide, The Gay Life, and She Loves Me, perhaps it was the sound of her glorious soprano that obscured how effortlessly she brought glowing life to the characters she was portraying. When she sang "Glitter and Be Gay" or "Ice Cream" or "Magic Moment" or "My White Knight," she was acting all right! And she still is--so beautifully that she clearly underlines the "art" in the Sondheim art songs she offers throughout what she calls her current "conceit." The idea is to give Sondheim his due but also to include a number of songs the tributed master wishes he'd written. He'd provided a list of such songs, Cook reminds the crowd, in a New York Times Magazine profile not too long ago; the idea for a concert based on this repertoire was Harper's, and he and Cook have previously presented versions of it at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere.

Concept firmly in hand, Cook is off to the races, with Harper and bassist Jon Burr providing solid, often swinging backup. Many singers have given outstanding accounts of "Send in the Clowns," but even if Cook were the only one ever to have tackled this bittersweet rumination, its brilliance would be unquestionably established. The solemn, almost sacred way in which she prepares to glide into the song and then her haunted delivery make the Vivian Beaumont auditorium so quiet that you could hear a rosary drop. (Well, the arrangement does call to mind the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria.") Ever since Cook played Sally in the 1985 concert version of Follies, she's proved time and again that she can communicate the depth and complexity of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind." Her exquisite version of Saturday Night's "So Many People," written when Sondheim was just out of Williams, reminds listeners that the composer-lyricist all but sprang full-blown into the lucky world as a songwriting genius.

Cook explores the Sondheim wish list just as skillfully. Singing no less than four Harold Arlen songs (two with Yip Harburg's words, two with Johnny Mercer's), she does another of those room-silencing turns on "I Had Myself a True Love" and breaks thrillingly loose on "The Eagle and Me." (The latter includes the line Sondheim has sometimes cited as his favorite single phrase from a lyric: "Ever since the day when the world was an onion.") In a medley of three old-time standards that Cook says caught her off guard her as Sondheim choices, she has sunny fun with "Hard-Hearted Hannah," "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," and "San Francisco." She also rhapsodizes about Reba McEntire's recent stint in Annie Get Your Gun, calling it one of the five or six best musical comedy performances she's seen, before going on to get all the laughs Irving Berlin packed into "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun." And though she insists that "The Trolley Song" belongs for all time to Judy Garland, she then sings the infectious Ralph Blane-Hugh Martin specialty number as if she herself were 21 and newly infatuated. Can't act, indeed!

There are so many highlights in the intermissionless 90-minute show that it's almost blinding, along with a few moments that might cause an otherwise wowed reviewer to cavil. Almost nothing Cook decides to sing, whether by the man of the hour or his idols, is less than top-flight. But two selections do prompt impatience: the meandering "Happiness" and "Loving You" from Sondheim's truly trying Passion score. These demonstrate that when Sondheim sets out to write art songs, he falls far shorter of the mark than he does when tossing off something like "Send in the Clowns" overnight because it will fit a particular actor, character, and/or dramatic situation.

Through the years, as was almost inevitable, Cook's voice has lowered and darkened somewhat--though she still lands on the B-natural in Bock and Harnick's "Ice Cream" like a gymnast nailing a dismount. (She says she conjures up images of her friend Kiri Te Kanawa, who then hits the note for her.) Although Cook continues to emit high notes as if she were Rapunzel spinning golden threads, there are times when other notes are constrained. She has also constrained herself by requesting or allowing three speakers to be set before her on the thrust stage in a semi-circle. Because her microphone triggers feedback when she gets too close to these hulking appliances, she has to remain at a distance from the audience. It's almost as if, while ambling back and forth during songs, she's being kept back by one of those invisible electric-shock devices that keep dogs from straying off lawns. Though Cook remains ingratiating throughout her generous program, she doesn't entirely overcome the emotional remove that this setup engenders.

Another thing: Cook, who put on weight sometime back and retains a Mode magazine figure, has never made wardrobe an important part of her concertizing appeal but has often worn glittery, full-bodied-woman frocks with panache. For this stint, she's decided on black trousers and top and a coat that looks like a black tent with its front flap hanging open. The only reason to mention this is that some ticket buyers may find themselves trying to figure out how the hell the dress works when they should be concentrating on the woman's rapturous singing and emoting. Otherwise, Barbara cooks.