Cook has a way with (others') words

Times Staff Writer

Barbara Cook

The Metropolitan Opera Presents Barbara Cook at the Met

(DRG Records)

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WITH a tweak of Dorothy Fields ("If they could see me now, that little gang of mine / Standing where Domingo sings with James Levine"), Barbara Cook joyously launches her latest CD, "Barbara Cook at the Met," a live recording to treasure of the concert she gave at New York's Metropolitan Opera House last winter.

The occasion was the first time in the history of that vaunted institution that a nonclassical female singer was invited to perform. And for those in Cook's cult (count me in), the date (Jan. 26) has special significance. It was exactly 31 years earlier that she recorded "Live at Carnegie Hall," the concert album that inaugurated the second act of her illustrious career.

Cook got her start as a musical theater ingenue in the '50s and is perhaps best known for her Tony-winning turn as Marian the librarian in "The Music Man." She vanished from Broadway in the early '70s after gaining a lot of weight and reemerged as a cabaret artist whose singing carried a new depth of feeling.

At 78, she may be wise to skip "Vanilla Ice Cream," the song with the high C crescendo from "She Loves Me" that is still one of her signatures. But as an interpreter of lyrics (say, of Richard Rodgers' "This Nearly Was Mine" or Harold Arlen's "I Had Myself a True Love"), she has only ripened.

Granted, there may be one or two voices out there with more range. (Audra McDonald, who joins Cook in a rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," is the most notable in the new crop of musical theater stars.) But who else has Cook's gift for conveying the spirit of a song as it was originally composed?

Her instrument is still, miraculously, top-notch. But more important, no one acts the subtext of lyrics better than Cook. Her wit and wisdom are grounded in an emotional knowingness that allows you to hear a familiar line, such as "Don't let the blues make you bad" from "We'll Be Together Again," as though it were being laid bare by an actress of the most profound psychological acuity.

Cook's own complexity makes her the perfect match for Stephen Sondheim, who's well represented here. The duet she performs with Josh Groban of "Move On" from "Sunday in the Park With George" is itself more than worth the price of the CD. Here and throughout, the beauty of Cook's singing is at one with her truth.


Pipe up? LuPone happily obliges

Patti LuPone

The Lady With the Torch

(Ghostlight Records)

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THE exquisite gift of Patti LuPone's voice lends itself to acts of virtuosity. Showmanship comes naturally to her. She's musical theater's answer to bel canto -- a Broadway baby ready to bowl everyone over with coloratura.

No wonder she excels onstage in roles that demand unbridled theatricality -- the title character in "Evita," Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes" or Mrs. Lovett in the current revival of "Sweeney Todd." In short, anything that lets her blow, Patti, blow.

"The Lady With the Torch" finds her in a lovelorn mood. She's undeniably as melodious as ever -- still one of the prettiest singers to have graced the Great White Way.

But much as you'll thrill to the lilting harmonies, you might not always buy that's she crooning from the other side of despair. Compare, for example, her version of "The Other Woman" with Nina Simone's, and you'll get a sense of the difference between a deft stylist and a true poet of the blues.

LuPone offers a shadowy interpretation of Harold Arlen's "Ill Wind," but the ecstasy she derives from her own outsize talent undercuts the emotion. And how can anyone who so enjoys rousing us with Gershwin honestly pretend to be wistfully musing about the man she'll one day love?

Fans will thrill at the lovely sounds she can wring from her pipes, but the songs themselves sometimes seem upstaged.


Someone tell him to just be himself

Brian Stokes Mitchell

Brian Stokes Mitchell

(Playbill Records)

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BRIAN Stokes Mitchell's debut solo album reveals what Broadway audiences have long known -- that this leading man can adapt himself to any musical mood -- romantic standards, le jazz hot or the showiest of show tunes. If anything, the CD may showcase his chameleon skills a bit too well.

A Tony winner for the 1999 revival of "Kiss Me Kate," Mitchell lent humorous grit to Cole Porter's champagne sophistication. Here the singer's dexterity with character takes a back seat to his flair with lyrics.

In songs such as "The Best Is Yet to Come," "How Long ..." and "Just in Time," he luxuriates not just in words but in pauses. Lollygagging his way around lines, he occasionally discovers in them a sinuous charm.

The flourishes, however, can get a bit fulsome at times. Style gets the better of substance in his smoky rendering of "Lazy Afternoon." And the same tedious note is monotonously overplayed in "Losing My Mind."

It may be that Mitchell is more personally affecting when singing as someone else. When he performs as himself, there's a kind of old-school variety show flavor to his presentation. You're always impressed with his talent and command, but he hasn't yet established a singular identity.

But stay with him. A soloist needs more than one album to find himself. And his smooth flamboyance bodes well for the next outing.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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