- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

To say that Barbara Cook has aged well is an injustice. She's the personification of a seasoned performer and very much unlike those Broadway stars who have not entered their later years gracefully think of Carol Channing, if you can stand it.
Miss Cook's voice is strong and vital, and the packed crowds listening to her in "Mostly Sondheim" at the Kennedy Center are living proof of her appeal.
Miss Cook, a veteran of countless Broadway shows, first came to prominence a half-century ago. She defined the female leads of "The Music Man" and "Candide," among others, and then started singing more or less exclusively in concerts.
She brings her longtime collaborator, Wally Harper, with her to Washington, and his piano playing unobtrusively undergirds her soprano tones. Stephen Sondheim helped select the songs for the evening. The show, part of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, combines the songwriter's own favorite tunes with "other songs he wishes he'd written."
When Miss Cook sings lighter ballads, as she did for most of the first half, she doesn't really show off her goods. Her midrange is powerful and expressive, with warmth and precision. Early in the program, her higher register lacked fullness and power, and on most songs, that was true. When she sang "Ice Cream" from "She Loves Me," however, she exploded on a high B-natural, so she still can nail those notes when she must.
Of the two showstoppers of the set, one, ironically, was not composed by Mr. Sondheim. "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," by Irving Berlin, from "Annie Get Your Gun," drew a huge reaction from the crowd and was (to me, at least) the best thing about the revue.
Miss Cook recalls how she shied away from seeing that musicalfl a Broadway revival, because country singer Reba McEntire was playing the title role. "For me, a little twang goes a long way," Miss Cook comments. But she ended up loving the production.
The other highlight, "Send in the Clowns," showcased Mr. Harper's musicality and Miss Cook's emotive subtlety. They transfixed the crowd with Mr. Sondheim's tapestry of heartbreak and flickering hope.
Other highlights included "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," by Lewis F. Muir and L. Wolfe Gilbert, in which Miss Cook revealed her Atlanta roots with a little hint of a drawl. "The Eagle and Me," from "Bloomer Girl," was big and strong, with the melody right in the meaty part of Miss Cook's vocal abilities.
Mr. Sondheim's fans like to think of him as the thinking man's Andrew Lloyd Webber, and with his precise rhyming schemes and deft lyrics, that point is unarguable. In at least one respect, though, his critics are right: His songs aren't as tuneful as those of the Gershwinsfl or Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Placed in the context of more colorful, traditional Broadway fare, his songs seem pale and anemic compared with when they are in his musicals.
As Miss Cook says, Mr. Sondheim "doesn't play it safe." Indeed, his works sometimes crash through the guardrails. (His play "Assassins," about presidential murderers and attempted murderers, is laughably bad, the stuff of parody.)
The pairing of Mr. Sondheim and Miss Cook is a winning one because of that. Miss Cook is still willing, at age 74, to challenge herself and her audiences. Instead of a more traditional rousing encore, she chose to reappear without a microphone and deliver a sweet, delicate ballad.
Although the choices she and Mr. Sondheim make don't always pay off, Miss Cook is inspiring as she expands her professional range and strives to reinterpret her love of musical theater in ever new ways.

* * *
WHAT: "Mostly Sondheim" with Barbara Cook
WHERE: The Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays, through June 16
TICKETS: $45 to $50
PHONE: 202/467-4600
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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