CULTURE MONSTER

Barbara Cook at the Wallis: Still doing what she does best

Barbara Cook at the Wallis: Still doing what she does best

Barbara Cook graced the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, and while the singer wasn’t in tiptop form — she needed a cane to walk on stage, sang from a wheelchair and had trouble remembering lyrics — it was hard not to feel privileged hearing her one more time endow the great American songbook with deeply felt introspective life.

At 87, Cook no longer has the vocal resources that she had when she performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in November 2012 as a mere 85-year-old. That was one of her finest outings — right up there with the first time I saw her about 15 years ago at the Café Carlyle, where I declared myself a Born Again Cook-ian. (I may have come late to the party but I’ve made up for it by seeing Cook more times than I’ve seen any other singer perform.)

Cook is incapable of putting on a bad show because she can’t help responding with her whole emotional being to resonant lyrics riding on indelible melodies.

“I can’t sing something if I don’t understand what it means,” she said after pairing a moody version of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” with a haunting a cappella rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun.” The two songs only became part of her core repertoire after she discovered unexpectedly that they share thematic links, and she moved between them as though they were related one-acts.

There was a lot of reminiscing Tuesday in Beverly Hills, so much so that the ratio of patter to performance seemed out of whack. Nearly every song was prefaced with a long and winding anecdote. Some of it was medical in nature — Cook found out through an MRI that she had fractured her back in a fall, hence the temporary wheelchair — though there were also candid tidbits about showbiz greats, both living and dead.

Cook confessed that she finds Barbra Streisand’s recent work too “studied” and that she wished Babs were more generous with her stardom, opening herself to younger artists who rightfully revere her. (Apparently when paying her respects to Cook backstage on Broadway a few years ago, she avoided the rest of the company.)

Stephen Sondheim was compared to Shakespeare, Cook remarking with awe on the manifold layers of his lyrics. But she noted that he likes to keep even his friends off-balance. No one can know him, she conceded, though she’s grateful to call him a friend.

Richard Rodgers never chased her around his office, she joked, but then she had been tipped off by a friend to be on alert. Watching “Fiddler on the Roof” recently on Turner Classic Movies, she marveled that men as talented as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick could have become part of her life. (So moved was she by nostalgia that she spontaneously started singing “Sunrise, Sunset,” turning the theater momentarily into a wedding hall as the audience eagerly joined in.)

This past winter the Wallis has presented a series of memorable concerts showcasing theatrical royalty. In January, Betty Buckley performed one night with her superb band in a bill titled “Ghostlight” after her recent recording produced by her friend, the one and only T Bone Burnett. In February, Patti LuPone, while in town for the L.A. Opera production of “The Ghosts of Versailles,” dazzled audiences for two nights with her cabaret act, “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda … played that part.”

These women are a generation younger than Cook, but they clearly have benefited from her majestic example. What time has stolen from the soprano who lit up the original Broadway productions of “Candide,” “The Music Man” and “She Loves Me,” it has replaced with interpretive depth and maturity.

Buckley, adopting a jazzier approach to singing, bowled us over with her impressive musicianship and personal grace. LuPone, who can still belt as big as ever, is the consummate Broadway baby. If she has become chary with her coloratura, she made up for it with her musical-comedy spirit and virtuosity. What’s more, she proved that she can still bring a house to tears with “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” her signature imperial ballad from “Evita.”

Like Cook, Buckley and LuPone don’t deliver songs so much as slip into them as though they were dresses made exclusively for them. Whenever Cook’s band (expertly led by pianist and music director Lee Musiker) began playing a song, you could actually see her transport herself to another reality.

A reality constructed by gifted songwriters but inhabited uniquely by her. Cook Method-acts her numbers, drawing on her difficult Atlanta childhood, her showbiz travails and triumphs and the pileup of losses that, as she pointed out, are the price one pays for being lucky enough to grow old.

Every singer working today should flock to her master class in husbanding genius. Her longevity is no accident, but neither is the cult that has built up around her. She gingerly handled “Georgia on My Mind,” but when she finally applied power to the name “Georgia,” she made it count — cry is more accurate — in a way I’ve never experienced before.

The art of singing, she explained, should “make you hear the song again.” Cook underestimates her power: She allows us to experience standards as though they were newly written.

At once timeless and time’s captive, she brought childlike wonder to “Makin’ Whoopee,” joyful grown-up gratitude to “I Got Rhythm” and retrospective wisdom to “No One Is Alone” from “Into the Woods.”

“Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood” — she reflected upon the Dantesque meaning of Sondheim’s line, but she needn’t have said a word. Her singing illuminated everything she knew and felt.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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