Barbara Cook at Barbara Cook’s Spotlight at The Kennedy Center by David Friscic

Who is Barbara Cook? Kennedy Center Honoree, peerless  Broadway, concert and cabaret star —or simply a legendary icon?

Barbara Cook stepped out on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Friday night to prolonged “bravos” and applause which befits the reputation of this beloved iconic  performer but also showed the deep affection and love that her audience feels for her.

Through an 80-minute set of several classic love songs and more pop-oriented songs, Cook enthralled the crowd  with a down-home bawdiness, sly knowingness and utter sophistication which is the essence of Cook’s simple yet complex on-stage style. Cook’s mastery is embodied by the fact that she performs each song with a very focused and direct approach to a listener’s emotions yet – by the time each number is finished  – one is left with a feeling that only great artists can evoke – namely, the feeling that the performer possesses an almost mysterious, undefinable understanding of the material.

Barbara Cook. Photo by Mike Martin.

Innovation was the hallmark of this concert as Cook sang a capella and performed with some very jazz-infused arrangements – eschewing her beloved Sondheim and any overtly Broadway-oriented songs. Instead she opted for a set that included some very intriguing medleys, list songs and  some very interesting between-song patter.

Backed up by a four-piece combo including stellar support from her musical director and pianist Ted Rosenthal, the arrangements and instrumental interludes with Jay Leonhart on bass, Warren Odze on drums, and Steve Kenyon on winds were top-notch.

A highlight in a set full of standouts was Hoagy Carmichael’s evocative “The Nearness of You” where the last note was held out for a tremulous finish. Cook mentioned that “list” songs are the hardest to sing in the world and then launched into a very jazzy, spare rendition of “Making Whoopee”with the emphasis on the lyrics – demonstrating once again that nobody understands the emotional arc of a lyric better than Cook.

The wonderful standard “Georgia” was given a bluesy, soulful interpretation by Cook – with a humorous bit of patter about what she thought about those pines.

A particular highlight was an a capella medley  of “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” – her silvery tones wrenched every bit of poignancy and melancholy out of these songs.  After she was done singing, Cook mentioned that both songs dealt with houses of ill repute.

Cook covered “Here’s to Life” (so often identified with Shirley Horn) and made it totally her own.  She invested the song’s lyrics with such raw and gut-wrenching emotion that the song almost became cathartic. This song was so sensitively sung that the audience erupted into sustained applause for several minutes.

A light-hearted “I’ve Got Rhythm” was performed right before a very poignant closing song – an a capella rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Like all great artists, Cook’s art is hard to define in mere words – one has to experience her artistry firsthand.

Barbara Cook.

Now in its fifth season, Barbara Cook’s Spotlight brings perennial Broadway favorites to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater for a host of theater cabaret performances. Continuing in its sixth season, the 2012-2013 season will feature Broadway favorites including Maureen McGovern on October 12, 2012; Judy Kuhn on December 7, 2012; Terri White on January 25, 2013; and Adam Pascal on May 10, 2013.

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