Concert Review: Barbara Cook plays a perfect Cabaret Jazz performance


Some things, and some people, are worth the wait.

The latest example - and one of the greatest - is Barbara Cook, who wraps up a four-day run tonight and Sunday afternoon at The Smith Center's intimate Cabaret Jazz.

A Tony-winning Broadway star for two decades, a cabaret and concert draw for three decades, Cook (a 2011 Kennedy Center honoree) has a genuine claim on that overused phrase of praise "living legend."

Happily, as Cook demonstrated during Thursday's Cabaret Jazz opener, it's the "living" part of that cliche that counts.

Cook's first Vegas gig - at age 84 - shows what we've been missing all these years.

Then again, before The Smith Center and Cabaret Jazz came along, Las Vegas didn't have a venue where Cook could truly shine.

Refreshingly unpretentious and unabashedly down-to-earth, Cook takes a subtle approach, one where the spotlight is on the song as much, if not more, than the singer.

Not the sort of thing that plays so well in a flash-'n'-trash casino environment.

But in the swellegant Cabaret Jazz, Cook seems utterly at home, utterly at ease. And so, as a result, is the audience.

The 200 or so fans at Thursday's opener greeted Cook with a standing ovation - before she sang a word.

True, Cook doesn't get around so well anymore - but, walking with a silver-topped cane, she even turned her entrance into a part of the show, singing a charming mash-up of Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful" and George Gershwin's "Stairway to Paradise," with made-for-the-occasion lyrics, as two Cabaret Jazz ushers helped her to the stage.

If you're expecting nothing but show tunes, however, you'll have to make do with an artfully chosen, sensitively performed array of jazz and pop standards transformed through Cook's understated but unmistakable artistry.

Given her background, it's hardly surprising to hear Cook plumb the emotional depths of such heartfelt ballads as "The Nearness of You," "Lover Man (Where Can You Be)" and "If I Love Again" with disarming directness and aching tenderness.

Cook also shows off a delightfully saucy side with bright, up-tempo renditions of such wink-wink delights as "Makin' Whoopee" and "Let's Do It." (In these, and all other songs, she's ably accompanied by the insinuating, sprightly swing of pianist and music director Ted Rosenthal , drummer Albie Berk , bassist Kirk Smith and woodwinds player Don Shelton.)

Even Cook's flubs prove entertaining, as when she lost track of Cole Porter's convoluted "Let's Do It" lyrics Thursday ("another bloody list song," she carped) and sorted through lyric sheets atop Rosenthal's piano until she found her place and picked right up again.

Throughout the evening, a few unlikely song choices surface. But even the unlikeliest - a plaintive a capella rendering of "House of the Rising Sun" (paired with the more buoyant "Bye Bye Blackbird") or her poignant encore, John Lennon's idealistic "Imagine" - show Cook fully in command, and fully at home.

Each selection showcases Cook's crystalline tone and perfect diction. To say nothing of her self-deprecating sense of humor, her generosity of spirit - and a sunbeam smile that not only lights up her face but everyone else's too.

These days, with many singers determined to put their own stamp on a tune (no matter how much it stamps out the songwriter's original melody, let alone intent) it's an unalloyed joy to see, and hear, someone so dedicated to the art, and heart, of song.

As she sings "Georgia on My Mind," the song's familiar lines take on a new meaning.

From "Just an old sweet song" to "comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines," from now on, when I hear those lyrics, it'll be Barbara Cook on my mind.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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