Barbara Cook turned 80 two days before delivering a dazzling vocal perf as part of the L.A. Phil’s Songbook series, anecdotally and interpretively connecting with finest composers Broadway has seen. The lyric soprano spent an hour and 45 minutes onstage displaying an incomparable tender tone on ballads and blues — she can belt the showstoppers like “San Francisco” as well — and an unquestioned command of every song, regardless of its style.
Awe-inspiring show is largely based on a recent Carnegie Hall concert titled “No One is Alone,” a tribute to Stephen Sondheim’s gentle and affecting ballad from “Into the Woods.” The material dates back to vaudeville and the music she was introduced to as a teen in Atlanta. But as the finest interpreter of Sondheim, she’s not about t drop or even lessen that connection: Whether it be the song itself or a little game of six degrees of Stephen separation, Cook’s going to find a way to connect the dots. (One exception Al Jolson’s “There’s a Rainbow’ Round My Shoulder,” but that one’s an addition for a birthday concert in New York next month).
Cook, who last year became the first female solo pop singer to be presented in concert by the Metropolitan Opera, begins in Rodgers and Hammerstein territory — “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “It Might As Well be Spring” and “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy,” the latter used to exhibit Cook’s spectacular control — and then continues along the Hammerstein-Sondheim connection and a visit to Richard Rodgers’ Park Avenue apartment decades ago.
The range within the show’s 20 songs is remarkable. “No One is Alone” and an non-amplified reading of Bernstein-Comden-Green’s “Some Other Time” provided the sublime moments; “Lover Come Back to Me” received a jazzy swing treatment; Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms” and Sondheim’s “So Many People” were mighty and serious; and a Ukele Ike hit about puppy love that rhymes “terrier” with “marry her” brought out the chuckles.
A trio suits Cook just fine — her longtime accompanist and arranger Wally Harper died three years ago after working with Cook for 25 years — and they provide tension and energy without straying from the sheet music. As if to drive home the point of how tethered Cook is to the music as written, they take no solos, choosing instead to emphasize the cohesion of the collective effort. They provide the support a legend deserves.
Cook’s birthday celebration concerts will take place Nov. 19 and 20 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.