Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook
If those remaining contestants on FOX's American Idol (even you, Adam Lambert) really want to learn a thing or two, they should fly across the country to Feinstein's at the Loews Regency to take in Barbara Cook's superb new show Here's to Life, which continues until May 2.

In a mere 75 minutes, and in number after number, the legendary octogenarian singer demonstrates every one of those pointers that Simon, Paula, Kara, and Randy blather on about week to week -- such as taking a song and making it your own and letting one's personality shine through -- and does it solely by relying on a pure, supple voice (no melismas here) and a thorough understanding of a lyric.

What makes Cook so extraordinary, though, is her ability to do all this equally well on songs both famous and obscure, and on songs she has performed dozens of times or has just learned for this act. For example, what's so shocking about her heartbreaking, almost hypnotic take on "I've Got You Under My Skin" isn't its excellence, but Cook's admission that it's the first Cole Porter song she's ever done in one of her cabaret shows!

She juxtaposes two more new numbers to her repertoire to surprising effect. She follows the belty and slightly silly "Chicken Today and Feathers Tomorrow" with Alec Wilder's and Edward Eager's devastating "Goodbye John," which not only brings tears to Cook's eyes, but the audience's as well.

It's no surprise that her skill with the work of Stephen Sondheim is practically matchless, as demonstrated by sterling renditions of "No One Is Alone," "Send in the Clowns," and especially, an inspired pairing of "One More Kiss" and "Goodbye for Now." She shows even more dexterity with the music of Harold Arlen, from the depths she brings to the ballad "It Was Written in the Stars" (with lyrics by Leo Robin) to the fearlessness she displays in "You're a Builder Upper" and "Buds Won't Bud," both with tongue-twisting lyrics by Yip Harburg.

But one can truly sum up Cook's mastery of the art form in her final three numbers. She cuts away the melodrama of "Here's to Life," the now de rigeur finale of almost every singer of a certain age, to focus on the simplicity of its message; discovers pure joy in Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Him So," and concludes with a pristine and unmiked reading of the standard "What a Wonderful World." It certainly is a wonderful world that allows us to spend an evening with Barbara Cook.