On Saturday June 30, Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge played host to the exquisite Miss Barbara Cook, still radiant at 84, who is perhaps the greatest legendary singer to ever grace a stage. What can one say about this living legend that has not already been carved in stone? I can only add that being in her presence, as I sat in the vast auditorium, I felt like I had been invited into her living room and was sharing a gift that she was giving to me alone and then, of course, to everyone else lucky enough to be there. She made each and every one feel special.
"Here are some of my favorite songs by Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin followed by some gorgeous tunes by composers like Cole Porter... that I have been reluctant to include in my shows...until now", is likened to what Miss Cook told us upfront. A sweet Southern girl from Atlanta, she was unfamiliar with Porter's elevated language of love, but now realizes that she must make them a part of her legacy. After all, she is revered for knowing how to sing a song better than anyone else - kind of like Meryl Streep does when she tries on a new role for size - and so she must challenge herself and make the 'new' standard material her very own. And that she did! I have never heard Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" sung with such tenderness or "Georgia" with such dynamic loyalty - and she claimed this was indeed challenging, as she actually hated living in Georgia - and equating "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bye, Bye Blackbird", two songs about houses of ill-repute, with such knowledgeable assurance, you could swear she had been visiting them all of her life. This is the mark of a true artist, to take the unfamiliar, give it shape and then give it back in a form as familiar as sunshine or rain. Very few come close to the artistry of Barbara Cook. And this is not to say she's perfect. She did not quite reach a note at the beginning of one song, she stopped - "Oh, I rehearsed too much!" - started it over, hit the note and continued on. Another mark of a true artist in the theatre where anything can - and does - go wrong!
Other highlights of the evening, postponed from May 19 due to illness, were her familiar show tunes like "No One Is Alone" from Sondheim's Into the Woods, "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun and "This Can't Be Love" by Rodgers and Hart. Then came new renditions of "I've Got You Under My Skin", "When Sunny Gets Blue", "Lover Man, Oh Where Can You Be", "If I Love Again", "Here's to Life", some 'list songs' like "Makin' Whoopee", "Let's Do It" ... and an a cappella rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" sung center stage. You could not hear a pin drop ... so, you could hear and understand crystal clear every word, every note she sang. Backed by Tedd Firth on piano, Albie Berk on drums, Kirk Smith on bass, and Don Shelton on woodwinds, Cook and her orchestra just sizzled. Walking with a cane, she is obviously still in pain from her recent illness, but is on the mend, and assures us that she will get even better. God bless her as she crosses country with her 85th Anniversary Tour. Young singers should come watch this lady perform and learn how she takes a song, molds it her way until she literally owns it, music and lyrics. She is a master teacher in singing.