BWW Reviews: OC Hosts Tony-winning Legend Barbara Cook's 85th Birthday Concert
That was the defiant yet infectiously joyous declaration Barbara Cook bellowed while receiving one of many standing ovations at this past weekend's concert in Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Billed as the Broadway legend's 85th Birthday Concert (though she actually turned 85 back in October), the Tony Award-winning soprano's one-woman concert of musical theatre songs, rare selections, and jazz standards was met with well-earned---and well-deserved---adoring cheers throughout the evening.
"I'm just so lucky to still be singing at my... advanced age," she confessed during her nearly sold-out performance, which was later immediately followed by an informative question-and-answer session with Cook conducted by Michael Kerker, ASCAP's Director of Musical Theatre. It's certainly quite a curious, perhaps expectedly humble set-up decree to say out loud, considering many of her other equally legendary peers---also of an "advanced age"---may have realized that with advanced age comes the realization that one's voice may not be as pristine as their past performances may have indelibly seared into the public's judgmental memory.
But to everyone's awed delight (and, I admit shamelessly, that my heart did cartwheels with every song), Cook sounded effortless and beautiful, painting each song she sang with the brushstrokes of a seasoned artist. Singing with a lovely, extra bounce of joy---even as she sat on a stool for the entire show---Ms. Cook's beguiling, wonderfully-performed show was a pleasurable collection of songs she specifically chose to convey her emotional state and her inner beliefs, a fact that she adamantly acknowledged throughout the evening in her on-going iteration as a celebrated cabaret chanteuse.
Though, watching her perform---especially on the slower, emotionally-piercing ballads that tug at the heartstrings---there was no denying that she is not only an exceptional singer, but also, quite obviously, an incredible actress. After getting her start as a club singer in New York City, Cook made her Broadway debut in the little-seen 1951 musical FLAHOOLEY before landing the part of Ado Annie later that year in the revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic OKLAHOMA!, thus beginning a steady stream of lauded work.
Following a stint as Carrie Pipperidge in another Rodgers and Hammerstein revival, CAROUSEL, Cook solidified her Broadway stardom by winning the role of Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE. Then in 1957 she finally won the Tony for her role as Marian in MerEdith Wilson's hit stage show THE MUSIC MAN. Her streak of great performances continued with roles in SHE LOVES ME and the revivals of THE KING AND I, SHOWBOAT, THE UNSINKABLE Molly Brown, and FUNNY GIRL.
She later reinvented herself as a celebrated concert performer, beginning with a much talked-about solo show at Carnegie Hall in 1975 and continues through today in famous venues across the world. And here, in 2013 in Orange County, Cook---almost 40 years after her debut solo show---delivered a truly impressive concert, providing smile-inducing selections that range from swinging jazz, moving, often tear-jerking ballads, fun standards, and some aching torch songs.
Beginning with the cheerful "Let's Fall In Love," followed by the rousing swing of a mash-up of "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" and "It Had To Be You," Cook's concert---with, surprisingly, nary a Sondheim tune in sight---was a perfect blend of upbeat and poignant songs. She had lots of fun with "Makin' Whoopee," the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm," and Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)," while turning up the gorgeous, moody drama in "When Sunny Gets Blue," "Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)," and a very haunting, melancholy mash-up of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bye Bye, Blackbird" (the latter medley had Cook starting the song a cappella... and, boy, was that a mesmerizing prelude!). She even had time to tear the virtual roof off of the concert hall with her genuine, heartfelt take on "Here's To Life." I think I mumbled "wow" to myself after it several times.
Cook is also a big supporter of songwriters, paying homage to many accomplished composers throughout the night, particularly Hoagy Carmichael, who penned "The Nearness of You" and "Georgia On My Mind." She sang both tunes beautifully, as she did Dan Hicks' "I Don't Want Love," and Ben Oakland's "If I Love Again." Caressing her notes and phrasing with purposeful care, and espousing lyrics with undeniable clarity and precise diction, Cook's delivery is just superb.
And like most cabaret concerts, Cook also provided some humorous anecdotes in between songs. After singing a lovely version of "Georgia On My Mind" as a tribute to her childhood home in Atlanta, she quickly admitted that, despite the tribute, she had to confess that, growing up, she "couldn't wait to get outta there!" Like most artists, she felt like she didn't quite "fit in" in the Big Easy, but that once she stepped foot in New York City, she thought, "well... there's not a damn thing wrong with me!" Adorable.
She also dedicated a section of her banter to explore funny song titles people have submitted to her to sing, and, she also revealed her flat-out obsession with 3-hour marathons watching videos on YouTube, which, apparently, have been quite an eye-opening resource for her concert repertoire (Ms. Cook, we totally share your obsession, believe me).
But perhaps the night's most unexpected highlight---that many in the audience will surely remember and talk about as the night's best moment for years to come---is her final encore performance: ditching the mic and holding herself steady center-stage with just the aid of her cane, Cook sang a sincere, heart-tugging a cappella version of John Lennon's "Imagine." With just her pure, un-amplified voice, still remarkably audible in that huge hall, Cook sang the song unlike any performer I had ever heard do it before. It got so palpably quiet in the hall during the song that you could hear people's breathing, as if we were all inhaling this incredible experience together. That was magic. And, frankly, it was pretty badass. Brava!
And if the concert was Cook's master class in musical performance, her latter casual interview with Kerker was a symposium on how to be the best entertainer one can be. The cherry on this frothy dessert of an evening, the question-and-answer portion conducted by Kerker provided some sage advice for musical theater performers... and some cheeky, candid revelations as well.
When asked about her collaborations with legendary writers and composers, Cook admitted that she was still surprised how she "got away" with getting her stubborn, opinionated wishes---from changing song keys to revising staging---continuously granted by her employers. "I [think] I am just so sure how something should be done, that I know it's the only way to go!" This was certainly the case, she confirmed, with her legendary work with Leonard Bernstein in CANDIDE and her roles on several Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
"What about with Sondheim?" asked Kerker. "Oh... he gave me lots of notes! And he often corrected my diction!" Cook answered with a joking chuckle. "He is a trip and a half!"
Cook's long and continuing career was, of course, front-and-center, simply because many of her legendary counterparts (some of whom are even younger) haven't found effective ways to sustain their instrument the way Cook has done so well. Evidenced by the night's concert, Cook's voice remains vibrant and strong, almost as much as her early concert recordings---and is achieved so continuously by design.
Save for a few higher notes, Cook admitted candidly that she knows full well that she can no longer hit certain notes comfortably as she did in her early years; so to sound great, she simply chooses songs, arrangements, and keys that are slightly lower in register, yet still have enough ummph to wow her audience. And, most importantly, the songs must speak to her from a personal place. Luckily, cabaret and jazz music has allowed her that freedom.
"I think in five years," Cook proudly stated, "I'll sing even better than I do now. Honestly, I feel that... I'm still a... work in progress."
Phrasing---and the ability to sing lyrics for comprehension's sake---is also very important to Cook, a declaration that I wasn't surprised about as I listened to every song throughout the night. As I jotted down notes for this review, the one thing that really stuck out with me was how well Cook clearly enunciated every lyric, which made me love her overall delivery even more. Personally, I feel that diction is a lost art, especially among today's pop stars, and that Broadway-honed performers like Cook---with their emphasized verbalization---should be lauded for employing this practice more than most.
"Singing should be conversational," Cook explained, "and that it's of utmost importance that the audience understands every lyric you're singing." Yes, ma'am!
She also took time to answer a few questions submitted by the public through the Center's web site, and---haha---even one of my questions got read out loud to Ms. Cook by Kerker. It was also the one question that genuinely stumped her: of all her vast roles she's played on Broadway, which one, I asked would she feel would have been her best friend? After running through her list of remarkable roles, it finally dawned on her how much she loved Carrie in CAROUSEL. "I don't know why everybody says I played ingenues on Broadway," Cook protested, "I never played an ingenue!"
And, finally, as parting words of advice for every young person in the audience, Cook simply told them: "Remember... You are enough. Stay exactly the way you are." For those of us lucky enough to catch this living legend at this concert, we can certainly say it right back to her.
Photo courtesy of SCFTA.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret Series continues with Betty Buckley on May 16-18. Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.SCFTA.org.