The 70+ songbird is still going strong!
One of the true living legends of musical theater, 76 year young (!) Barbara Cook offers, in this 2003 recital style concert, a sampling of the talent and taste of another Broadway luminary, the genius composer Stephen Sondheim. Inspired by an interview the creator of such shows as Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and A Little Night Music gave recently, highlighting songs he'd wished he had written, Cook combines the musician with his obvious muse to present classic songs sung in a distinct, traditional fashion. A Tony winner for her portrayal of Marian, the librarian object of Professor Harold Hill's wandering eye in The Music Man and a historically important figure in several careers (she starred in Leonard Bernstein's failed epic Candide and essayed the complex female lead of Carrie in Rogers and Hammerstein's magnificent Carousel), Cook took a break from the eight show a week grind of the theater to reinvent herself as a cabaret singer. As the years have gone by and other talented performers have retired or stopped touring, Cook remains an active connection to the old school of the Broadway spectacular, of scene-stealing ballads and ballsy show stoppers. And thanks to DRG Records and a slew of popular CD releases, she is once again a much in demand concert performer.
The show offered on this DVD is 110 minutes of musical bliss. Cook is still blessed with a vocal instrument of surprising purity and power at an age when most singers' fragile talents have distorted into malt vinegar. Maybe the high notes are no longer a given, but her range and emotional resonance are pitch perfect. Like all good interpreters of songs, Cook knows that it's the words, more than the melody or arrangement that sells a number. Her phrasing and performance of the lyrics here, not just by Sondheim but also by some of the seminal rhymesters of the stage is remarkable. She knows when to add the proper emphasis or how to loose unimportant points in the mix to get to the heart of a tune's poignant truth. Accompanied only by a piano (played by her musical collaborator of over 25 years, Wally Harper) and a stand-up bass, it is left to Cook to replace the remaining instruments in a standard orchestration with vocal skill and subtly. And she rises to the occasion, be it in the opening "Everybody Says Don't" to the seminal "In Buddy's Eyes." She is equally impressive, however, when barreling through old time standards like "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" and the clang-clang cheerfulness of "The Trolley Song." With between song banter that is witty, insightful, touching, and tough, Cook offers a running commentary on all aspects of singing, from the life of a leading light on the Great White way to the death of the traditional song/story musical. As she moves through the final verses of "Send in the Clowns" or "Losing My Mind," you get the real sense of living history, of musical theater's past prime, transitory before your eyes and ears.
If there is anything negative to say about the set list presented here is that it is composed mostly of Sondheim's favorites, not his own glorious work. The lack of his oeuvre leaves the concert feeling incomplete (indeed, there was a longer, more Sondheim intensive version of the show—featuring a male vocalist with whom Cook sang duets—in existence before this scaled down, more intimate performance). Songs like "Not While I'm Around," "I'm Still Here," or "Move On" would be perfect for Cook and her eloquent, gentle soprano. She is to be applauded for brave choices like "Happiness" and "Loving You" from Sondheim's complicated Passion, but there is something to be said for crowd pleasers like "Ladies Who Lunch" or "Side by Side." Also, she mentions Candide and its importance in her career, but then snubs the show completely, even with a later day Sondheim connection (he played a significant role in a late '90s revival of the famous "flop"). Overall, this is a very personal, very pleasant set of material for Cook and she handles it flawlessly. And in her mid-70s, it's hard to fault her for sticking with what works for her gift. But a little adventure goes a long way in circumstances like these and maybe the next time she takes the stage she will highlight some of the Sondheim forgotten here. Still, for anyone who loves Broadway, the musical format, or just finely crafted songs sung with impeccable style, wit and heart, Barbara Cook: Mostly Sondheim will be a welcome addition to your DVD collection.
DRG Records, in connection with manufacturer Koch Vision, have done a remarkable job with this, one of their first DVD packages. For starters, we get an unbelievable audio and visual experience. The concert was recorded on videotape and the transfer is impeccable, making even non-HDTVs seem high definition in the playback. The colors are electric, the image sharp and crisp. In close up, you can see the twinkle (and the occasional tear) in Cook's eyes. The picture here is truly a stunner, as is the sound. From an aural standpoint, a concert film is all about the reproduction of the sonic showcase experienced by the actual attending crowd. Thanks to a spectacular Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound presentation, you too will feel like you're in the audience, experiencing this diva's fine voice first hand.
On the extras side, we also get a couple of real gems. First is an inventive discography of Cook's work for DRG. Presented either in a self-select list or a slide show style presentation, each CD shown has a list of its enclosed contents while selected moments play on the soundtrack. It's an incredibly effective way to highlight (and sell) her catalog. Then there is the 20-minute snippet of a Master Class that Cook conducts wherever she is in concert. This one, taped at the Kennedy Center, is a good example of what makes Cook not only a great singer but an impeccable teacher as well. A student named Tim Tourbin sings a heartbreaking version of "Id Rather Be Sailing," a song from William Finn's Off-Broadway show A New Brain, and as good as he is the first time through, after gentle criticism from Cook he stops the entire class dead with what is an absolutely riveting, emotional tour de force. We also suffer along with another singer as she tries to "un-train" herself and bring depth and clarity to the song she is struggling with. The entire time, Cook is a matronly monitor, adding pointed but polite correction to basic blunders. It's too bad that the class is cut short—twenty minutes just whets our appetite for more (as does an interview reel that consists of Cook sound bites that were used in between master class material to explain/enlighten her approach to voice). In total, this is a music lover's digital dream, a pristine concert with a chance to also see the personal/professional side of the performer in question. Even if Broadway has slipped into rock opera histrionics and bad Lloyd Webber wannabes, DVDs like Barbara Cook: Mostly Sondheim remind us that the magic of musical theater is just a great song, and better yet, a great voice away.
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