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by Michael Portantiere

Now We're Cookin'!

  • Barbara Cook, photo by Mike Martin


    Standing ovations have become de rigeur on Broadway but not in concert halls and opera houses, where they occur far less often and, therefore, mean something. Even more special is the standing "o" that greets an artist not at the end of a performance but at the beginning, as soon as she walks on stage. When that happens, you know you're in the presence of a someone who has earned the unconditional love and admiration of audiences through decades of stellar work. That certainly describes Barbara Cook, who celebrated her 80th birthday year with two concerts at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday and Tuesday, November 19 and 20, thrillingly supported by the New York Philharmonic under Lee Musiker.

    Yes, the audience cheered and leapt to its feet en masse when Cook took the Fisher Hall stage for last night's performance, looking beautiful and slimmer than in some recent appearances. The Philharmonic had paved the way for her entrance with a joyous, rousing account of the overture to Candide, the Leonard Bernstein operetta in which Cook starred on Broadway more than 50 years ago.

    There followed a variously romantic, swinging, funny, and heartbreaking set of songs, many of which Cook has sung often in such venues as the Cafe Carlyle, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera House. But the evening was sparked by some new or at least newish selections -- and, of course, by the Philharmonic, which accompanied Cook in more than half of the program. She began with "Lucky to Be Me" from On the Town and then said to the audience, "I can't tell you how pleased I am to be singing again with this great band up here," noting that the last time she and the Philharmonic made music together was in the memorable 1985 concert performances of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.

    Therein lies the extra-special magic of this week's event. Over the past several years, Cook has appeared regularly in all sorts of New York City clubs, theaters, and concert halls, but even when performing in such vast venues as the Met and Carnegie Hall, her instrumental accompaniment has been limited to a small handful of musicians. So it's impossible to overstate the thrill of hearing her do her stuff with nearly 100 players supporting her for the bulk of the Avery Fisher program.

    Highlights included Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well Be Spring" (from State Fair); "A Wonderful Guy" and "This Nearly Was Mine" (both from South Pacific); insouciant renditions of "Give Me the Simple Life" and "Nobody Else But Me"; and the utterly charming ditty "My Dog Loves Your Dog," which Cook told us has been recorded by Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. "Ukulele Ike," a.k.a. the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the classic Disney film Pinocchio. Cook sure knows how to balance a program: She followed her moving performances of "Lost in the Stars" and "No More" (the latter from Into the Woods) with an uplifting sing-through of "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," presented in a piquant, cha-cha like orchestral arrangement.

    Anyone who has experienced Cook in live performance knows that she's famous for her "unplugged" encores, and the song she picked for that treatment on this occasion was so apropos and so well suited to her voice that it almost seemed to have been written for her: "Some Other Time" from On the Town, by Bernstein, Comden & Green.

    There's another salient aspect of Cook's concerts that should be mentioned: Whatever the venue, she likes to perform with the house lights up to half. This sometimes can be mildly distracting, as when certain audience members arrive late or have to nip out for a bathroom break in the middle of the proceedings; but it does create an increased sense of connection between Cook and the public that outweighs the distractions. Smart woman, our Barbara!

    In a previous review, I half-jokingly suggested that Cook should will her body to science in the hope that someone will discover how in the world she was able to retain a gorgeous, seamless, full-service soprano into her 80th year. I'm no expert, but I think the fact that she never "belts" high notes in raw chest voice has a lot to do with it. (Are you listening, up-and-coming theater girls?) Also, it's intriguing how Cook revels in sustaining high notes on the long "e" vowel (as in "me" and "be"), whereas that particular placement is anathema to most singers because, to some extent, it closes the mouth and the throat. This is just one indication that Cook's voice is unique, as is her artistry.

    It has just been announced that Cook will be giving a special encore performance with the Philharmonic on January 8. My advice is to get your tickets now. It's always great to hear this lady sing under any circumstances -- but, as she herself has often said (and sung), "It's better with a band!"

    Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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