The new Barbara Cook is more “torchy,” and unfortunately “Sondheim-less.” The legendary Broadway soprano’s voice is still crystal clear and her phrasing near perfect in her show at 54 Below. Almost no one performs a song better than Cook despite the fact that she sang seated in a chair since her painful knees and back limited her from standing on stage. “I can’t walk very well,” she quipped after being helped on stage. “But I don’t feel 85; it’s a number.” This magnificent, courageous and resilient performer doesn’t look her age either. Her face was glowing with her expressive eyes and warm smile. Her strong passion to communicate a song and to go deep in her work is as apparent as ever. Although she can no longer reach the high notes of my longtime Cook favorite, “Ice Cream,” her current selections are ones she does well, and she does reach some high notes albeit in a lower key in the optimistic “Here’s To Life.”
She’s always been successful with Harold Arlen’s numbers, and “Let’s Fall In Love” didn’t disappoint. Cook explained that she doesn’t like to sing a song if she doesn’t know what the writer intended so she made sure the audience knew that “House of the Rising Sun,” which she did a cappella, and “Bye Bye Blackbird” were both about houses of ill repute. She did a couple of Hoagy Carmichael numbers, “Georgia on My Mind,” — although she related that as a teenager she couldn’t wait to get out of Atlanta because she felt she never really fit in– and “The Nearness of You” with only piano behind her.
Cook has done this familiar repertoire many times over the past couple years. “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Here’s To life,” “Lover Man” on her CD of the same name, and “I Got Rhythm” featuring Dave Riekenberg on winds were high points. I’m a long time Barbara Cook admirer, but much of this show didn’t wow me this time around. Perhaps because I reviewed the second evening when she admitted being exhausted after opening night. Even her patter was not as fresh and spontaneous as usual. But the encore, John Lennon’s “Imagine Imagine Bows” featuring her musical director, Ted Rosenthal, on piano and Cook without microphone leaning on her cane was the Cook I know and love. She was amazing and left the audience wanting more and more. In addition to Rosenthal and Riekenberg, other band members, all superb, were Jay Leonhart on bass and Warren Odze on drums.
If you haven’t experienced a Barbara Cook cabaret performance, don’t miss her at 54 Below: April 30 at 7 PM; May 1 & 2 at 7 and 9:30 PM; May 3 & 4 at 8:30 PM. For reservations,www.54Below.com.