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Barbara Cook
(Photo © Rahav/Cosi)
In reviewing Barbara Cook's most recent recording, a Christmas album released in the fall of 2003, I commented that this beloved artist's incredibly well preserved, gorgeous soprano voice was finally beginning to show some few signs of age. It was natural to assume that the deterioration was permanent -- after all, Cook is now entering her late 70s -- but I'm thrilled to report that this is not the case and that the lady must have just had a (relatively) bad day on the occasion of the recording sessions. I would say that she is singing like a 35-year-old in Barbara Cook's Broadway, her current show at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, except that I know of very few 35-year-olds who sing so spectacularly well.

Cook is performing the show at the Beaumont on dark nights of the theater's current attraction, King Lear. She makes comic hay of that fact as she enters for the first time, looks up at the Lear set, and then sings a little bit of "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?" (from Camelot) with special lyrics. ("What merriment is Chris Plummer pursuing tonight?" she wonders about the star of Lear; apparently, she needn't have asked the question during her opening performance last night, as Plummer was in the audience!)

After that amusing opening bit, Cook launches into a wonderful program of songs from Broadway musicals in partnership with her longtime musical director-pianist, the great Wally Harper. (Richard Sarpola, on bass, adds much to the proceedings.) The title of the show might lead you to believe that it consists mostly of Cook singing songs she sang on Broadway in such shows as Flahooley, Plain and Fancy, Candide, The Music Man, and She Loves Me, but this is not the case. In fact, except for one verse of "Till There Was You" from The Music Man and the brief "No More Candy" tune from She Loves Me, Cook eschews the numbers associated with the roles she created on the Main Stem. (She does sing a bit of "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide, but to tell you more about that would spoil one of the show's most delicious surprises.)

Instead, Cook offers (1) music from shows in which she did not appear, (2) music from shows in which she appeared but not on Broadway, and (3) music from shows in which she did appear on Broadway, but which was sung by others. Among her selections in the first category are "A Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific, "Wait 'Til You're Sixty-Five" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and "Look What Happened to Mabel" from Mack & Mabel. Falling in the second category are "Mister Snow" from Carousel and "In Buddy's Eyes" from Follies. And as for the third category, Cook sings three songs from She Loves Me that were performed in the original production by Barbara Baxley ("A Trip to the Library") and Daniel Massey ("Tonight at Eight" and the title song).

The programming of these numbers, interspersed with Cook's delightfully down-to-earth patter, is exemplary for the most part. Even what might be seen as a flaw in the programming only serves to point up Cook's greatness as a singing actress. Several of her selections --Bob Merrill's "His Face" from Carnival, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "This Nearly Was Mine" from South Pacific, Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" from The Music Box Revue, Jerry Herman's "Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel, and the Styne-Comden-Green standard "The Party's Over" from Bells Are Ringing -- evoke sad, wistful moods of lost or unrequited love. This may sound like too much of the same thing, but Cook interprets each of these songs so movingly that the last one she performs is as persuasive as the first.

Word is that learning new material has always been a rather difficult process for Cook, and this is given credence by the fact that she flubbed a few lyrics during the performance of Friday evening, March 26. In "Tonight at Eight," she verbally stumbled several times and never did get one particular line right. There were less obvious problems elsewhere, as when she repeated some lyrics in "A Perfect Relationship" from Bells Are Ringing. This sort of thing can be embarrassing to both performer and audience, but Cook's honesty and charm save the day.

Speaking of flubs: A hilarious word substitution in one section of patter during Friday night's show led to a huge laugh. Cook was talking about how she was in several productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. "The first time, I played Carrie Pipperidge," she told us. Cook meant to follow up with "...and then I did Julie Jordan" but what she actually said was "...and then I did Julie Andrews." (That great star's name had been mentioned earlier in the evening.) Of course, the audience began to laugh uncontrollably and so did Cook, but she recovered beautifully. "Actually, I never did Julie Andrews," she assured us. "The thought never occurred to me!"

Let it be understood that the relatively minor flaws noted above shouldn't cause anyone to hesitate for a moment in deciding to see Barbara Cook's Broadway. If you've already had the privilege of experiencing Cook in live performance, you don't need to me to tell you that you should grab the opportunity to do so again. And if you've never attended a Cook show, you should get on the phone to purchase tickets to this one before you finish reading this sentence.

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