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Cook, Master Communicator, Suffuses Songs of Sondheim & Company with Understanding & Feeling
by Bruce-Michael Gelbert | >> see bio
Barbara Cook courtesy of Jerry Kravat Entertainment Services
On November 18, at Carnegie Hall, veteran music theater, cabaret and concert soprano Barbara Cook, firmly supported by her Music Director, Eric Stern, at the keyboard, John Beal on bass, and Jack Cavari on guitar, introduced an engaging new program, billed as "No One Is Alone" and made up of songs by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and other composers and lyricists she had worked with, much of it familiar, but some of it new to her repertory. As always, this consummate artist's singing concerned communication, knowing exactly what the words mean and putting that across. In the sad songs, Cook made the listener aware of the hopes that were dashed to give rise to such sorrow and, in the hopeful songs, made similarly plain the tears that had been shed and lay behind the joy expressed. Cook was singing-and singing very well indeed-despite an infection that had left her voiceless just days before, and asked and readily got, but ultimately did not at all need, our indulgence.

Cook infused "Could Be," from Bernstein and Sondheim's "West Side Story," an apt choice of opening number, with the necessary wonder, anticipation and energy, and continued to radiate this sense of awe in Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "Never Neverland," from "Peter Pan." She brought renewed freshness to an up-tempo, at once dulcet and bright "Surrey with the Fringe On Top," from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" and ended it with a blue note. Her wistful pairing of Styne, Comden and Green's "Long Before I Knew You," from "Bells Are Ringing," and Styne and Sammy Cahn's "I Fall in Love Too Easily," from the film "Anchors Aweigh," followed.

In an upbeat "Nobody Else But Me," written by Jerome Kern and Hammerstein for a 1946 revival of "Show Boat," Cook treasured a match that is good despite its flaws. In Bernstein, Comden and Green's "Some Other Time," from "On the Town," she keenly captured the song's mix of shrugging off regrets and looking on a bright side that barely exists when there is no time to waste. Her hushed "No One Is Alone," her show's title song, from Sondheim's "Into the Woods," reflected a realization that, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there are reasons to feel encouraged, and quiet resolve marked her "No More." Her "You're What I Need," a Rodgers and Lorenz Hart rarity, from "She's My Baby," proved endearingly forthright.

From Sondheim's "Follies," Cook's "One More Kiss," Heidi Schiller's bittersweet operetta-style waltz, was brave and beautiful and, fighting back the tears, betrayed no regret. Her Sally Durant Plummer cherished illusions in her "In Buddy's Eyes," with but a glimmer of recognition of the self-deception and, with the musicians, Cook conveyed the agitation lurking beneath the surface of the mostly optimistic words. Pointing out that Sondheim "writes scenes for [singing actors] to sing," she mined "I Wish I Could Forget You," from "Passion," for full measures of both its pain and its loveliness. In a wry "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," from "Company," in which she substituted "if he happened to be gay" for "if a person was a fag," a slower pace than is usual allowed for great attention to detail.

In Kern and Hammerstein's "All the Things You Are," the singer limned the perfect, and perfectly elusive, love, reveling in the joy and ruefully acknowledging the frustration indicated by those repetitions of "someday." Her Sigmund Romberg and Hammerstein's "Lover, Come Back to Me," from "New Moon," jazzy and hot, was less sentimental than we are accustomed to, but sung with no less fervor. In Rodgers and Hammerstein's "This Nearly Was Mine," from "South Pacific," Cook stressed the dreams, apparently turned to dust, as much as the evident melancholy and, significantly, sustained the last note of "paradise," as if not wanting to let go of its promise, near the end.

Simplicity, the residuum created in the crucible of punishing experience, was the watchword of Cook's "Make Our Garden Grow," the finale of Bernstein's "Candide," with Kelli O'Hara, Sebastian Arcellus, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the Canticum Novum Singers, and members of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus joining her for its ringing, wrenching climax. Cook alone had the last word, though, in a knowing title song from Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle," probing ability and limitation, and seeking the way to conquer the latter.

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