Cabaret Barbara Cook Cafe Royal, London
'Nothing is at arm's length; she drags her audience right in there with her, whether she's passionate or larking around'
Tuesday 23 January 1996
You could be forgiven for thinking that an artist in her late sixties might be showing signs of wear and tear. Not a bit of it. Anyone remotely interested in singing should beat a path to her door.
She arrives in an immense black and silver flowing sequinned gown, but the standard showbiz paraphernalia stops there. The voice is a bright, rangy soprano, but there's a deep, gutsy quality back there waiting to grab you by the lapels. Her rock-solid technique frees her up to concentrate on the meaning of a lyric, colouring phrases with an astonishingly light touch, but she also possesses the sheer power to knock you sideways.
Her greatest asset, aside from the spellbinding arrangements by her dazzling pianist, Wally Harper, is her naivety. Irony, archness and vocal mannerisms are stripped away so you never get the sense that she is distanced from the material. Nothing is at arm's length; she drags her audience right in there with her, whether she's passionate - as in a selection from Porgy and Bess - or larking around swinging through the Yiddish shtick of "When I'm Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love".
Her version of Amanda McBroom's "Errol Flynn" is a little miracle of restraint, a tender reflection sung against Harper's gently rocking accompaniment which oozes sentiment but never collapses into sentimentality.
Finding up-tempo numbers is the cabaret artist's nightmare. Emotional ballads are two-a-penny, but you have to vary the pace and who wants to sing nauseatingly perky stuff? When she launches into "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top", she's gleeful and girlish, radiating pride and an almost lunatic exuberance which draws you in despite yourself. You wonder why you never noticed what a good song it is. Actually, it isn't good, merely sweet, but Cook makes you experience her joy. She can also underpin phrases with ardent longing by simply letting the colour drain from her voice.
Too many singers spend entire evenings showing off their voices regardless of what is happening in a song. Not her. She dovetails the act with chat about the writers, saying of Marvin Fisher's wistful, late-night gem "When Sunny Gets Blue", "There are legions of songwriters who would have given anything to have written just one song of this quality." There are legions of singers who would give a whole lot more to be able to perform as well as Barbara Cook. If only they could.
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