Review: Barbara Cook and the rebirth of a cabaret

When the celebrated performer Barbara Cook sang her first notes Wednesday night at the revitalized Prince Music Theater, she wasn’t just giving a concert. She was rekindling big-time cabaret in Philadelphia.

 

Morgan’s Cabaret, in a black-box second-floor theater with food and bar service at its cafe tables, lives again. A cabaret season was a staple of the Prince until the theater’s money troubles and a fight with its then-mortgage holder, TD Bank, evolved into bankruptcy. But now the theater begins a new life, and with it, Morgan’s Cabaret returns with Cook as the debut act in a season of names. In November, Patti LuPone performs. Steve Tyrell arrives in February, Karen Akers in April.  

Cook, a Broadway mainstay and Tony winner in the ’50s and ’60s, became a concert and cabaret performer when she sang at Carnegie Hall in 1975. Then, after 23 years off the Broadway boards, she returned three years ago to appear in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a show marking composer Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. The next year, 2011, Cook became a Kennedy Center honoree.  

Cook isn’t singing Sondheim — she became a devoted interpreter of his work — or the music by any of the Broadway song-book composers that audiences expect to hear. Her current cabaret, touring for about a year, is “a swingy, jazzy, bluesy kind of show, which I always wanted to do,” she told the packed house Thursday evening, when I saw her perform. She’s backed by an excellent ensemble of four musicians, and performs for about 75 minutes in an eclectic program she assembled. It begins with “Let’s Fall in Love” and ends with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Somewhere in between, she gave a soulful a-cappella rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Cook is a few weeks away from turning 86, and aside from a slight vocal crack here and there — she had minor sniffles when I saw her — she retains her creamy middle register, smokier lower one, and clear high register with a full vibrato. She’s walking with the aid of a cane these days, and sits while she sings. She was dressed in black and with a snazzy, long blue-green jacket with red highlights, but the highlight of her looks is Cook’s smile, a generous one that beckons you to be comfortable. Her between-song banter involved a smattering of topics, from You Tube (where she finds an occasional song she performs) to stuffed animals.

She is a delight, and at times I felt as though I was in the presence of the welcoming, world-wise great aunt I never had but wished I did.  Cook’s smooth interpretive style is a given, and when she performed “Imagine” as a finale, she held the house in thrall. This is a not a singer who acts. This is an actor who sings. 

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Barbara Cook is at Morgan’s Cabaret in Prince Music Theater through Saturday, Oct. 5. 215-893-1999 or www.princemusictheater.org

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