DC Review: An Ageless Barbara Cook at the Strathmore Music Center

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"You have great musical courage, my dear." Leonard Bernstein said these words to Barbara Cook after the then-ingenue auditioned for Candide in 1956. Cook, despite her wariness of opera, had sung an aria from Madama Butterfly and had hit a stratospheric E flat. So when the opening notes of "Glitter and Be Gay" sounded and Cook strew shiny baubles over her black ensemble, I all but gasped. Would the 77-year old Cook dare to take on some of the arguably most challenging song ever written for a musical theatre soprano? She sung the first few notes before her rich, husky soprano changed into the colaratura of a woman in her 20's, and the audience realized that she was lip-synching to the voice of her younger self.

This final number was the piece de resistance of a concert that took place on May 8th at 2 PM and 7 PM at the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD. The blondwood and light fixtures of the concert hall lent a feeling of intimacy and warmth despite its scale. And when Cook, the legendary star of The Music Man, She Loves Me and Candide, walked onstage and opened with Coleman's and Fields' "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish," warmth was in no short supply. In fact, she insisted that the house lights be turned up, as she didn't want the audience to be some "black expanse." This is a performer who thrives on the unique rapport between performer and public, and she held it throughout the evening.

The concert took the form of a chronological tour of Cook's distinguished performing career--one that has spanned over half a century. Cook interwove personal history and songs, all the while peppering her narratives with witty anecdotes. In relating her encounters with fellow legends--including a shower-capped Elaine Stritch--Cook revealed that she is as star-struck as the rest of us. The star was both self-effacing about her memory lapses, and proud of her contributions to the Golden Age of Broadway. Indeed, Cook only realized there had been a Golden Age once it was over.

Cook's program was varied, with a balance of past hits and songs that were newer to her repertoire. She even sang a few "same show, different role" songs, such as "A Trip to the Library" from She Loves Me. While there was a sole Sondheim song (a rich, intense "In Buddy's Eyes"), Rodgers and Hammerstein and Bock and Harnick were well-represented. Among the highlights of the concert: a touching "Walking Among My Yesterdays" from The Happy Time, a rapturous pairing of Carousel's "Mr. Snow" and South Pacific's "A Wonderful Guy," an effervescent (and gender-changed) "He Loves Me" from She Loves Me, and an emotionally-charged "This Nearly Was Mine," also from South Pacific. Kosarin (who also handled the musical direction and fairly traditional arrangements) and Peter Donovan provided sterling support on piano and bass, respectively, never once overpowering the singer.

The lyric gold of the young Cook's voice has long since mellowed into copper, but it possesses a purity and range that could send much younger singers running in tears to their voice coaches. And the years have only added to her remarkable interpretative skills, the ability to strip away the layers of a song to its core of emotional truth.

However, Cook's memory was sometimes faulty. She flubbed lyrics on a few songs, among them a jazzy "The Gentleman is a Dope." While Cook explained that she hadn't performed the program in 6 months, the occasional lapses detracted from the overall power of her performance. However, the audience was forgiving, and Cook's earthy charm kept the missed lyrics from becoming a major problem.

Cook recalled that when she started performing, "Truman was president, Winchell was king" and musical theatre was nearing its very height. The Golden Age of Broadway may be dead and gone, but its melodies linger in Barbara Cook's ageless voice.

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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)