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Barbara Cook at the Met

In this concert, a great musical theater star offered a program of familiar material -- without orchestra. logo
Barbara Cook
Living legend Barbara Cook's concert at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, January 20 marked the first time in history that the company had presented a female pop singer as a solo artist. The event was historic on the face of it -- so it's extremely disappointing that Cook performed her usual repertoire at the Met without a full orchestra to support her.

Now, if you don't know a lot about Cook or the Met, this may not sound like a big issue; but if you do, it's really quite surprising. Blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful and expressive soprano voice, not to mention real talent as an actress, Cook was a major Broadway star in the 1950s and '60s. She then dropped out of sight for a few years before making a brilliant comeback as a concert and cabaret artist. She has sung all over the world in every venue imaginable, with instrumental backup ranging from a solo piano to symphony-size forces. As for the Metropolitan Opera House: It was specifically designed for performances with an orchestra of up to 100 players in the pit, and has only rarely hosted other types of presentations.

Of course, Cook herself must have had a large part in the decision that she would sing in this august venue with nothing more than a five-piece combo. Most of her shows and concerts in recent years have employed even fewer instrumentalists, so perhaps she chose not to have an orchestra at the Met because she's not really used to it -- though she has sung with Marvin Hamlisch and the National Symphony more than once, and she has a gig with the Columbus Symphony coming up in April. It's worth noting that, while the prices for some of the tickets to hear Cook at the Met were considerably cheaper than those for an opera performance there, others were just as expensive as what you'd pay to attend a production with 80 world-class musicians in the pit and 50 singers on stage, often including major stars.

The good news is that Cook was in gorgeous voice on Friday, and the ad-hoc sound amplification system that the Met used was better than expected. The lady flubbed the lyrics to three or four songs, but her adoring audience didn't seem to mind. When all is said and done, Cook is an irreplaceable artist, still singing incredibly well at age 78. It's sad that her longtime musical director/pianist Wally Harper, who died in 2004, couldn't be with her on this occasion; but Eric Stern did fine work in his stead. The all too small combo consisted of Peter Donovan (bass), Jay Berliner (guitar), Jim Saporito (drums/percussion), and Lawrence Feldman (woodwinds). In an attempt to make the 3,700-seat auditorium more hospitable to such an intimate concert, Cook and the musicians performed on a platform covering the capacious orchestra pit -- but this created sightline problems for those seated in the upper reaches of the house, who had to lean forward in their seats in order to see what was going on.

The fact that the program consisted almost entirely of familiar material sung without orchestral accompaniment was doubly perplexing given that Barbara Cook at the Met was recorded for commercial release. Whatever the event's disappointments, there was still a certain thrill in being present for it. But will people be inclined to purchase a new CD including "It Might as Well Be Spring," "A Wonderful Guy," "This Nearly Was Mine," "I Had Myself a True Love," "Losing My Mind," "In Buddy's Eyes," and at least four other songs that can be found on pre-existing Cook recordings? Some will probably consider the album worth owning if only for Cook's moving performances of John Bucchino's "Sweet Dreams" and Amanda McBroom's "Errol Flynn," two songs that she has not sung as often as those listed above. Other relative rarities for her were "Last Night When We Were Young" (Arlen-Harburg) and "Nashville Nightingale" (Gershswin-Caesar). Cook's a cappella, unamplified encore was her usual: "We'll Be Together Again."

The concert's tried-and-true programming extended to the guest artists. Elaine Stritch gave what must have been her ten thousandth performance of her signature number, "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company. Then she and Cook read from enormous, trailing stacks of sheet music as they performed Kander and Ebb's "The Grass Is Always Greener" (from Woman of the Year), supposedly because they didn't want to forget the lyrics. I guess no one was supposed to know or care that Stritch and Megan Mullally did the same shtick when they tackled the same duet in the Mullally concert that was part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series last year -- and so did Cook and Audra McDonald in their joint concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center two months ago. (Why do these women love this number? One or two lines aside, it's not that funny, and it really doesn't work when taken out of the context of the show.)

McDonald, Cook's second guest on Friday evening, sang one of her frequent selections: "When Did I Fall in Love?" from Fiorello! She and Cook duetted in a spiffy arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" that was also on their NJPAC program. Josh Groban, the third and final guest, did a lovely job with "Not While I'm Around." Then he and Cook teamed up for "Move On" from Sunday in the Park With George, which Cook sang with Malcolm Gets in her 2001 Mostly Sondheim concert at Carnegie Hall. At one point in the evening, Cook crooned "Them There Eyes" and played a kazoo while interacting with a tuba player who came onstage for that one number -- a bit that dates back to her 1981 Carnegie gig. She even revived an anecdote about Stritch that she told in every performance of her recent Barbara Cook's Broadway show at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, which was also recorded.

Cook has been known to program the Wally Harper-David Zippel song "It's Better With a Band," an ode to the distinctive sounds of brass, strings, woodwinds, etc., even when performing with only a piano and a bass. Happily, she refrained from singing it at the Met. One section of the song's lyric goes, "Now we're getting close to art." Barbara Cook is a great artist under any circumstances, and it's always a pleasure and privilege to hear her sing, but I can't help wishing that a full orchestra had been present for this concert. Judging by that criterion, it was a sorely missed opportunity.

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