May 4, 2013

Barbara Cook and a Real New York Evening

Even if you were born and raised in New York, as both my husband K and I were, you've probably had fantasies of living “the real New York life.” Of course the definition of what that is varies from person to person. 

For me, the phrase has always conjured up images of post-War Manhattan and that early Mad Men period when people went to swank nightclubs and hip jazz clubs. And this past week, I got to realize my fantasies: K and I went to 54 Below to see the great Barbara Cook and then afterward, we took a cab over to a little club on the East Side called Somethin Jazz to hear a trio lead by our young friend the pianist Kevin Harris. It was a real New York evening.  

I’d been wanting to go to 54 Below ever since a group of Broadway producers got together last year and converted the space underneath the old Studio 54 disco (now a home for Roundabout Theatre Company productions) into a cabaret and nicknamed it Broadway’s Nightclub.  

It's a Broadway production through and through. Tony winner John Lee Beatty designed the place, Tony winner Ken Billington has done the lighting and Peter Hylenski (nominated just this week  for his work on Motown: The Musical) did the sound design.
And the lineup of headliners reads like a Who’s Who of Broadway.  Patti LuPone was the opening act and has already returned a couple of times.  Ben Vereen, Sherie Rene Scott, Andrea Martin, Donna McKechnie, Victor Garber, Jason Robert Brown and Norbert Leo Butz, to name just a few, have all performed there too.  (Click here to check out the podcast that features interviews with many of them).

Still, it’s hard to think of a better person to see there than Barbara Cook. For she is the last great voice from the Golden Age of Broadway musicals still singing. Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951 and quickly became one of its leading ingenues, later creating the role of Marian the Librarian in the original production of The Music Man.

During the '70s, she hit a bad spell of depression, alcoholism and weight gain but she got through it and made a legendary comeback with a series of concerts and club dates that reestablished her as one of the leading interpreters of the American songbook.  

My husband K and I caught one of the performances she gave at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont back in 2004, shortly before her friend and collaborator, the pianist Wally Harper died.  It remains one of the Top 10 theatrical experiences of my life and so when I saw that she was making her debut at 54 Below, I knew it was really time for me to get there.  
I have to confess that I was a little disappointed at first. The room reminded me of one of those two-drinks-on-the-table clubs they used to have in Las Vegas. The cocktails seemed overly expensive; the waiters too harried.  

But then, Cook, now 85 and leaning heavily on a cane, entered the room and slowly made her way through the audience. By the time she was helped up on the stage and began to sing, the room seemed more elegant, the lighting more romantic. Two men at the table in front of ours moved their seats closer and leaned their heads together as they listened. I reached over for K's hand.

She warned us that she, although a leading Sondheim interpreter, would sing no Sondheim songs.  Instead, she did tunes by Hoagy Carmichael, Eddie Cantor, John Lennon and a few lesser known composers.  

I’ve read that the act is pretty much a reprise of the one she did at the now closed Feinstein's last spring and later at her birthday concert at Carnegie Hall last October.  But I didn’t mind and nor did anyone else in the room. 
Her voice cracked a couple of times during her first number but a couple of sips of water cured that.  “Don’t go home and tell people that Barbra Cook can’t sing,” she joked.  “Cause I can.”   

And while it’s true, that she talks as much as she sings during the 80-minute concert, it’s also true that when she sings, there’s no one like her.  Her engagement at 54 Below ends tonight but, with luck, she’ll be back many more times.
And with luck, more people will get to know and hear Kevin Harris. He’s a friend and so I can’t review his performance (you can find out more about him here).  

However I can say that, like Cook, Kevin tells stories with his music. He told K and me that he's planning to move to New York from his current home base in Boston. I'm looking forward to his interpretation of the real New York life.


Harmon Outlaw Images and Ideas said...

I wish I was in New York to check Barbara Cook out.....thanks for the review.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Harmon, it's great to hear from an old friend and you're right, you would have loved Barbara Cook. Hope all is going well on your coast and that you will keep reading B&Me.