STAGE REVIEWS : Carole Cook Reveals Her Life in ‘Dress Up’


Unless you come decked out in your best Armani or Gaultier to see Carole Cook’s new show, “Dress Up,” in the new Upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse series, you’re definitely going to feel underdressed. Cook surely didn’t intend it that way; she can’t help playing the hostess with an unashamed show-biz glamour, proudly showing off her black-and-silver gown. Besides, Cook verbally dresses herself down so quickly that her message is clear: Go ahead and laugh at me.

On opening night, did they ever, but with the pure affection of fans. It was a love feast that had less to do with her act than it had to do with her. Cook is a throwback to an era of hoofers and troupers exemplified by her star turn in “42nd Street.” She’s a living reminder of the Broadway that once was, just as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf is a living reminder of how the United States once won wars. Her weapons are nostalgia and a dry, Texas wit, and she uses her whole arsenal.

Still, as Simone Signoret titled her autobiography, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Cook’s monologue is really a casual train of personal anecdotes, broken up with a few tunes (accompanied by John W. Kavanaugh’s less-than-elegant piano). You’re grateful for the high proportion of talking to singing, which is a battle for her, especially on Billy Barnes’ “Too Long at the Fair.” Too, the talking is of the brunch-chat variety, not the kind of stories that, once heard, you can carry out of the theater.


In fact, Cook almost shies completely away from her show-biz years, dwelling instead on growing up in Abilene, Tex. She was the overweight, ugly duckling in her family, a “walking fashion violation,” according to her grandmother. (It’s easy to see where she picked up her acerbic side.) Life seems to have been a stream of church picnics, bridesmaid parties where all the women sweated in their “Playtex living rubber girdles” and trips to Dallas to see the Lunts and Mary Martin on stage.

Cook glosses over how she got from there to being Lucille Ball’s protegee in Hollywood, almost as if she’d just as soon forget about the struggles. When you’re a veteran, of course, you’re granted that liberty: Life’s too short a road, Cook might drawl, to dwell on the potholes. But what’s missing from this version of her life story is the adventure of her life.

Then again, Cook’s parting words--a lot more charming coming out of her mouth than on the page--are, “Here is my life! If you don’t like it, you can go take a hike!” Cook is happy to show off her cutting stand-up delivery, but she’s not about to show off what she doesn’t want to. Her husband, Tom Troupe, may be the “director,” but Cook is her own boss.

“Dress Up,” Upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse (formerly the Balcony Theatre ) , 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, Thursday-Friday, 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Through next Sunday; also April 23-26, same curtain times. $20; (818) 356-PLAY: (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours.