Do yourself a favor and don’t miss Barbara Cook!

Barbara Cook
Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency

Short of canonization, I can think of no headier honors than the ones that have already often been bestowed regularly on Barbara Cook. From the reviews of her new three-week engagement at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, where she is appearing through May 2, it is clear that the critics have already run out of adjectives. And why not? Despite the worst sound I have ever heard in a nightclub—opening night was so muffled the waiters were louder than the star, a betrayal that I hope has now been rectified—this is one of the legendary soprano’s best acts in years.

She calls it “Here’s to Life,” a song done so many times it has grown moss, but she’s so fresh and appealing that even that tired evergreen takes on new sparks. Her directness has not changed, but I detected a new emotional subtext to songs like Alec Wilder’s great “Goodbye John” (which she learned from one of her mentors, the incomparable Mabel Mercer) that salted my eyes with tears. This might partially be due to Lee Musiker, a jazzier pianist than her late accompanist, Wally Harper. His arrangements are warmer and juicier than the formal charts of days gone by, and they bring out a richer feel in the singer that sometimes sounds like a flashlight on the soul. With Peter Donovan on bass, James Saporito on drums and Lawrence Feldman on horns and woodwinds, the program explores a full range. From a bouncy “I Want to Be Happy,” with added lyrics about the economy and a whimsical jaunt through E. Y. Harburg’s lyrics, to Harold Arlen’s “Buds Won’t Bud,” there is abundant humor. I hadn’t heard the jazz romp “Chicken Today and Feathers Tomorrow” sung by anyone since the great Carmen McRae. And the lush ballads Ms. Cook is famous for are bountiful: Harold Arlen’s moody “It Was Written in the Stars,” the Vincent Youmans classic “Time on Your Hands,” and Sondheim’s “One More Kiss” from Follies are enough to make you think it’s spring even if you’re still wearing fur earmuffs. As always, there’s quite a bit of Sondheim (“No One Is Alone,” “Goodbye for Now”) and even the tiresome “Send in the Clowns” sounds newly minted. Every visit with Barbara Cook is a master class in vocal technique, mining harmony and interpreting lyrics. No “Ice Cream,” “Glitter and Be Gay” or selections from The Music Man this time around. Just purity and heart and a unique sound that only ripens with age. Singing much the same way she did when she was Broadway’s favorite ingénue, Barbara Cook must keep her voice in a drawer with Shirley Temple’s old socks.

rreed@observer.com