The best cabaret artists offer a truly intimate experience. Eyes rest on you (gaze into your eyes?) sharing emotion as if intravenously. Bridging patter is palpably warm and seems conversational. Songs, whether familiar in another context or spanking new to one’s lexicon, become stories. Barbara Cook has always epitomized this kind of performing. At a vintage 84 years-old, with the artisanal skills of a Faberge egg, she appears more accessible and at ease than ever.
Let’s Fall in Love is, by her own admission, the first show for which Cook chose all her own numbers. Perhaps as a result, it’s a mélange of material in which she takes particular and present pleasure. It’s difficult to believe the seasoned performer never sang Hoagy Carmichael before now. “If he’d never written anything but this next song, we’d still love him to death,” the vocalist enthuses. She closes her eyes and musically visualizes her man with every breath and note of The Nearness of You (lyrics Ned Washington)—as do we. Georgia on My Mind (lyrics Stuart Gorrell) is a sighing reflection colored by understanding of a south she apparently fled at aged 20 for higher ground. Its finish is glorious.
The coupling of House of the Rising Sun, a curse in the night which begins beautifully acapella as Cook gently hits the piano with her fist with Bye Bye Blackbird (Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon), is inspired. Blackbird is also, it seems, about a prostitute. Ordinarily bouncy verse is expressed with delicacy. Lover Man (Ram Ramirez/Jimmy Davis/Jimmy Sherman) written for Billie Holiday, is also unexpected. The artist delivers sheer blues without rasp, howl or catch in the throat. Her smooth voice and sliding octaves create a prayer.
Cook excels in, but isn’t limited by ballads. The show also includes a terrific rendition of the iconic Makin’ Whoopee (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn) popularized by Eddie Cantor. Opening with verse accompanied by Jay Leonhart’s rhythmic bass, joined by piano, drums and clarinet as it builds, the song becomes story telling in the performer’s capable hands. No longer reduced to being simply novel, it becomes a tale of human foibles deemed laugh worthy even by the sophisticated weekday night audience at Feinstein’s Supper Club.
Other upbeat numbers include Dan Hick’s sassy I Don’t Want Love: If love makes you give up steak and potatoes/Rice, corn, chitlins, and tomatoes/If love makes you give up all those things/I don’t want love with which Cook has a thoroughly good time and Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love), only—surprise!—the second she’s performed by that master. It’s full out happy despite being the most difficult of lyrics to learn—a list song. “Holy Hannah, if your brain gets into it, it’s too late!”
Patter is kept to a minimum. Cook’s selectivity has always been a signature. Every bit feels genuine and informs the evening. Arrangements by Musical Director and accompanist Ted Rosenthal are both original and perfectly tailored. Piano and wind parts are especially enriching, infrequently carrying the melody, but never distracting. The band is superior. This is a more swing-centric evening than I recall Cook ever presenting. We’re treated to a different kind of vocal exploration as well as the exceptional phrasing and high art of communication for which she’s best known. It works in spades.
An encore of John Lennon’s Imagine without benefit of a microphone has the audience holding its breath…before rising to its feet.
Let’s Fall in Love
Barbara Cook- vocals
Ted Rosenthal- Musical Director/Pianist
Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency
540 Park Ave at 61st Street
Through April 21, 2012