Barbara Cook hobbled to the stage of 54 Below April 23 for the opening of her two-week stand, singing a parody lyric to the verse of "They Say It's Wonderful" (rhyming "a person's knee" with "I might need surgery"). After calling on two waiters to lift her up the steps and slowly making her way across to a chair — all the while acknowledging the vociferous, loving ovation — she sang Harold Arlen's "Let's Fall in Love," and all trouble vanished.
Cook has had her medical ups and downs, but at 54 Below she is in perfect form. Perhaps it's the well-designed room or the lights, but she looked healthier and younger than in recent appearances. What's more, that pert smile and the twinkle in her eye were very much in evidence as she regaled the crowd with 14 numbers over 75 minutes.
This was a Sondheim-less, Rodgers-less evening; just, in her words, "blues songs and jazz songs and torch songs and God knows what." Cook regulars have heard these songs before: This is pretty much the act that she developed last spring at the now-shuttered Feinstein's, and reprised in October at her 85th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. (The songs can also be enjoyed on Cook's superb recent CD, "Loverman" [our review of which is linked here].)
The highlights remain as before; this is literally an evening studded with highlights. Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" is absolutely stunning, as is his "Georgia on My Mind." (The Georgia-born thrush admits that she couldn't wait to get out of her home state, and is the opposite of nostalgic about it.) Even so, a look around the room while Cook was singing about "that old sweet song" found the 150 assembled faces smiling. No, beaming.
Cook takes a handful of relatively unfamiliar songs — like Ram Ramirez's "Lover Man (Where Can You Be)," Marvin Fisher's "When Sunny Is Blue" and Ben Oakland's "If I Love Again" — and demonstrates their worth. Her a cappella version of the traditional "House of the Rising Sun," paired with Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon's "Bye, Bye Blackbird," remains breathtaking.
The star also displays the perfect way to deliver a comedy song with her rendition of the 1928 Eddie Cantor hit, "Makin' Whoopee!" (from Ziegfeld's Broadway blockbuster, Whoopee). Band, led by musical director Ted Rosenthal, is top-notch throughout. Cook and the boys — Rosenthal on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, Warren Odze on drums and Dave Riekenberg on winds —are all spotlighted on a wild and wittily arranged "I Got Rhythm."
As at Carnegie Hall, she finishes the set with John Lennon's "Imagine." No microphone; just Barbara and the piano, and just lovely. Fans who haven't seen her recently won't want to miss Cook at 54 Below, through May 4.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" [Oxford], “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at email@example.com.)