Also see Ann's recent review of Man of La Mancha
Legendary singer/actress Barbara Cook and musical arranger/accompanist/ composer/conductor Wally Harper collaborated on a theater piece to be presented at Carnegie Hall in 2001. The result, Mostly Sondheim, continued after Carnegie Hall to London's Lyric Theater, a fourteen-week engagement at the Lincoln Center Theater, the Kennedy Center, and through a lengthy national tour. The recipient of a Tony, a Grammy, and a Drama Desk Award, and an inductee into the Broadway Hall of Fame, Cook is also a favorite concert and cabaret artist. Currently being presented at the Byham Theater by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Barbara Cook and Mostly Sondheim provide an incredible evening of song, wit, warmth, and class. It would take all 48 synonyms for "superb" in Roget's Thesaurus to properly describe such an event.
The Carnegie Hall version of Mostly Sondheim (during which Cook was joined by Malcolm Gets for part of the program) has been preserved on a 2-disc audio CD set (and soon to be available on DVD) and, by songlist and anecdote, the current tour version doesn't vary too much. However, it is as if it were all brand new - Cook has kept the entire presentation fresh and full of life. She delivers her patter so matter of factly and off the cuff, one would think she was deciding at that minute what to say. This allows Cook to bring the audience into her show, joining in what almost feels like a private performance. Her love and admiration for the music she sings and the people she speaks of are palpable. When a performer shows the audience this kind of passion, it adds such a rich dimension to the show, it's no wonder the decision was made to present Cook and her two accompanists on a bare stage. Nothing else is needed.
As Cook explains at the beginning, the genesis for Mostly Sondheim was the 2000 New York Times interview with Stephen Sondheim, conducted by Frank Rich, in which Sondheim was asked to list the songs he "wished he'd written (at least in part)." The varied list of popular and obscure songs provides several choices for Cook's lineup, along with a good number from the list of songs we're all glad Sondheim himself wrote.
Arriving in New York in the late '40s, Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951. There are many recordings to show what a glorious voice she has had all these years, and it is thrilling to know that she still has it. It is difficult to single out highlights of this concert because she is evenly magnificent through the 90-minute presentation. The Sondheim selections might rise a bit to the top because of the obviously strong affection she has for his work. "Everybody Says Don't" (from Anyone Can Whistle), "So Many People" (Saturday Night), and "Not a Day Goes By" (Merrily We Roll Along) are all solid choices, and "In Buddy's Eyes" (Follies) is chill-producing for her emotional delivery. Cook's encore of "Anyone Can Whistle" is also outstanding, performed without a microphone.
Of the non-Sondheim selections, "Buds Won't Bud" (Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg from Hooray for What?) and the bluesy "I Had Myself a True Love" (by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, from St. Louis Woman) - "a little art song" as she calls it - are exquisite. Another highlight is "I Got Lost in His Arms" (Irving Berlin from Annie Get Your Gun), after which Cook raves about Reba McEntire's performance in the recent revival, a really gracious anecdote in which she expresses the hope that McEntire will return to the stage some day. One selection that Cook originated on stage is "Ice Cream" (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick from She Loves Me), a clever song in which she gets a great reaction from the audience for hitting the climactic B-natural. She modestly admits, "I have to give that B-natural a little more thought than I used to."
Barbara Cook really connects with an audience, and the audience here showed their appreciation enthusiastically with long ovations following each song, and a standing ovation at the end of the evening. It is a thrill and an honor to experience the talent of such a treasured performer. Barbara Cook in Mostly Sondheim is not to be missed.
Barbara Cook in Mostly Sondheim at the Byham Theatre February 14 - 15 only. For ticket information, call 412.456.6666. The Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim Carnegie Hall double CD is available at Amazon.com.