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For This Musical Couple, It’s Simply a Matter of Chemistry

By Stephen Holden
September 8, 2010
Barbara Cook and James Taylor
When Barbara Cook sighs the word in the opening phrases of “Cheek to Cheek,” the title song of her duet show with Michael Feinstein, you really feel as if she had just found paradise. And so have you.

As a musical couple, Ms. Cook and Mr. Feinstein, whose 54th birthday was celebrated at Tuesday’s opening night performance at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, suggest a modern-day Rogers and Astaire. Although they don’t dance, their artistic chemistry, in which Mr. Feinstein, gallantly squires Ms. Cook, 82, through the American songbook, has the same kind of courtly grace. Ms. Cook, like Rogers, is a no-nonsense gal: in her words, “a simple country girl.” Mr. Feinstein is a suave, adoring partner who gladly defers to the woman he described as “the world’s greatest interpreter of the American songbook.”

Their two-part harmonies were impeccable; their comedic give-and-take on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” carried a sharp comic bite. Katharine Hepburn’s famous observation that Rogers gave Astaire sex and Astaire gave Rogers class might be revised to say, Ms. Cook gives Mr. Feinstein reality, and he gives her fantasy. After all, you can’t have one without a little bit of the other.

The simple country girl confessed to having long resisted the lyrics of Cole Porter and to feeling alienated from the blasé attitude implied by “flying too high with some guy in the sky.” Then she delivered a version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” that turned it into a heart-rending description of love addiction comparable in depth to Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” a longtime Cook staple.

Lee Musiker arranged the song in a Sondheim style underpinned with obsessive piano figures; the phrase “stop before I begin,” revolved around the “stop,” a ringingly dissonant musical alarm.

In a his-and-hers medley of “The Very Thought of You” and “Tea for Two,” the abstract dreaminess of the first song melted into the second song’s picture of intimate togetherness. Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’s fairy tale ballad “Ever After” was answered by “Where Do You Start?” in which the dream has shattered, and all that’s left is to pick up the pieces.

Vocally, Mr. Feinstein has become a master of the slow build. “Without a Song” and “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” became tours de force of traditional pop belting executed with perfect intonation, enunciation and dynamic control. For the moment, at least, Mr. Feinstein has drawn back from the Sinatra-influenced swing that has dominated his recent performances. The band (Mr. Oddo on piano, Aaron Heick on reeds, George Rabbai on trumpet, Warren Odze on drums and David Finck on bass) created a sound that was crisply propulsive but intimate.

It remained for Ms. Cook to deliver the definitive rendition of “Here’s to Life,” the formal summing-up pop anthem for mature performers that has become a cabaret staple. Ms. Cook personalized the song with a tender interpretation that balanced resilience with wistfulness. Phrases resonated: “Memories you memorize to keep your winters warm”; “even though I’m satisfied I’m hungry still”; “for I have learned that all you give is all you get so give it all you’ve got.”

Just when you think Ms. Cook couldn’t go any deeper into song lyrics, she expresses new levels of empathy and understanding.