Arts: Music - A diva's masterclass in life, love and laughter

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The Independent Culture
THE TRUEST line of Barbara Cook's week long engagement in the Divas at the Donmar season comes in her opening song "Let me sing... and I'm happy". She sure is, and as her devoted followers will attest, she's not alone.

There are times at a Cook concert when you feel you're at a meeting of the faithful but with good reason. Her radiant voice generates kilowatts of pleasure and audiences just bask in it. A former Broadway favourite, Cook hasn't appeared in a dramatic role in years but who cares when her singing spins character and situation seemingly out of thin air.

Back in the 1950s, she spent evenings sneaking into Manhattan night spots to watch Judy Garland singing for pleasure. That taught her how to thread a song along an invisible dramatic line from start to finish, but if this conjures up the image of overwrought emotionalism, think again. Many singers go for generalised emotions to paint the big picture, as if to say, "This is a song in which I am extremely unhappy, geddit?", taking three minutes to run the gamut from terminal misery to suicide with show- off vibrato. Not Cook. She does detail, doesn't anticipate, and acts on the line.

Take her amused version of Duke Ellington's fairly inconsequential "I'm Beginning to See the Light". It's a song about someone who never understood romance until now. Wally Harper's lightly finessed piano-playing fairly twinkles against the strut and snap of Steve McManus's bass as Cook, wide-eyed and confiding, goes in for a little light swing, listing all the romantic cliches she never previously understood. Then, just before the end, she leans against the piano over Harper's harmonic suspension and musingly reprises the key moments of the lyric, "afterglow, mistletoe, [with accent] rose wine, lantern shine..." before releasing everything on the last line in a shudder of pleasure. She's also skittish on comedy, gleefully tossing off Billy Rose's little-known and absurdly sexist hymn to domestic bliss, "When I'm Cooking Breakfast For the One I Love", dedicated to her "good friend Germaine Greer".

Conversely, she takes a hackneyed number like "This Nearly Was Mine" from South Pacific but her placing of every musical and lyrical expression makes you hear it as if for the first time. Surprise and delight flood her voice and face as she builds to the exultant climax of "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy". Faced with a storm of applause, she shakes her head. "Boy, I tell you, that's good writing." This isn't self-deprecation. She believes she's there for the music and lyrics, rather than the other way round.

Wally Harper's sublime arrangements continue to set the standard for all other cabaret artists - was it his inspired idea to craft a solo version of Sondheim's "You Could Drive A Person Crazy"? And he and the excellent bass-player McManus get to hear Cook every night. You might be able to get in to hear her this afternoon giving an unpublicised Masterclass. Alternatively, you could just get on your knees and beg for a ticket to the show. After all, it's a masterclass in itself.

To Sat, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 0171-369 1732

David Benedict