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A Bouyant Approach to a Timely Set of Songs

By Stephen Holden
April 15, 2009
Barbara Cook at Feinstein's
photo by Joe Kohen
Of not many singers can it be said that time is on their side. Barbara Cook is one of the few who have learned to make friends with the enemy and turn it into a creative partner, so much so that their continuing pas de deux is the subject of her art. “Here’s to Life,” Ms. Cook’s new show at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, might be described as a dance to the music of time that examines how to be happy as the clock ticks and night falls. That twilight vision informs her version of “One More Kiss” (from Follies) and her encore, an unamplified “What a Wonderful World” that transforms this sugar-frosted musical greeting card into a moving late-life flash of gratitude.

Of the many cabaret performances of hers I have attended, Tuesday’s opening night was the first at which I have seen Ms. Cook’s blue eyes brim with tears. “Goodbye, John,” the song that elicited them, is an obscure, folk-flavored ballad from the late 1940s by Alec Wilder (music) and Edward Eager (lyrics). This stark, slightly elevated farewell, which holds out no hopes for reconciliation, was recorded by Mabel Mercer (a champion of Wilder’s music), whom Ms. Cook cited as an even stronger early influence than her other idol Judy Garland.

The song reaffirmed a guiding principle of Ms. Cook’s career: Simplicity is the avenue to truth. Her swinging, happy-go-lucky rendition of “Give Me the Simple Life” in the show is the upbeat expression of that concept. Her application of that principle to the songs of Stephen Sondheim, a composer synonymous in many minds with ambivalence and psychological complexity, has been the master stroke of her career.

Ms. Cook is accompanied on piano by Lee Musiker, who (with apologies to her original partner, Wally Harper, who died in 2004) has emerged as the strongest musical director of her career. Mr. Musiker’s harmonically sophisticated, jazz-savvy arrangements have a rhythmic flexibility that allows songs to accelerate and slow down in ways that feel organic to the material and to Ms. Cook’s interpretations. Peter Donovan’s discreetly bowed bass, James Saporito’s expressive percussion and Lawrence Feldman’s moody woodwinds complete this superior ensemble.

One of the show’s happy surprises is Ms. Cook’s and Mr. Musiker’s transformation of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” into a rich, Sondheim-style erotic rumination. Before singing it, Ms. Cook remarked that, in general, she found Porter songs too arch for her taste.

Although there is abundant humor in the show (the Johnny Marks novelty “Chicken Today and Feathers Tomorrow” is uproarious), its meat consists of ballads that take the long view. Ms. Cook brings a fresh perspective to “Here’s to Life,” a toast to experience that stars of a certain age treat as a proud summation of accomplishment and determination to continue. As sung quietly by Ms. Cook, its show-must-go-on spirit was muted, and it became a contemplation of the mystery of existence: a slow dance infused with wonder.