nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 19, 2005
Until Tribute this week at the Cafe Carlyle, I had never seen Barbara Cook perform live, either in cabaret or in a more traditional theatre venue. I'm a great admirer of her talent; from Candide and The Music Man to She Loves Me to the Follies concert and Mostly Sondheim, her cds are favorites.
But Tribute was a disappointment. I ascribe some of my dissatisfaction to the venue itself: the Cafe Carlyle crowds the customers in worse than Carnegie Deli, and the banquette I was seated on was no more comfortable than the wooden chair I would have been stuck on while eating my overstuffed sandwich at that famous tourist trap.
But I was sure that when Cook arrived, everything was going to be a-okay. And, indeed, I really liked some of her first few selections—"Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here" (from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner), in which every delicious lyrical pun is delivered with breathtaking clarity; and "The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue," a real charmer from the 1973 revival of Irene by Jack Lloyd and Cook's longtime musical director Wally Harper, which offers a sweet glimpse at a song most people are unfamiliar with.
The bulk of the songbag, though, is less welcoming. The theme of this show is given by its title—Cook pays tribute, briefly, to Harper, who died last year; to the late Bobby Short, who was the acknowledged king of the Cafe Carlyle for the last 30 years or so; and to Arthur Schwartz, for no apparent reason. The two additional Harper selections are sweet; but the Short pieces—"Nashville Nightingale" and "Bojangles of Harlem"—are hardly vintage Cook and don't come across either as particularly vintage Gershwin or Kern (who composed these two jazzy songs, respectively, many decades ago). The Schwartz segment consists of three songs from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: "I'm Like a New Broom," "I'll Buy You a Star," and "Make the Man Love Me"—pretty songs all, but Cook didn't seem to connect much with any of them.
A planned encore has Cook off mike (unplugged, as it were), singing "Smile." Having only recently heard Ruth Brown's amazingly heartfelt rendition, this one seemed kind of pale.
Cook's voice remains astonishingly lovely; don't get me wrong, there really isn't a dud anywhere in the batch here. But I didn't feel compelled or engaged by anything; I didn't feel passion. Maybe Cook is a bit at sea after losing Harper. Maybe it was an off-night. But I didn't really feel I got what I'd come for (though others clearly did, including a woman across the room from me who positively glowed with happiness during just about each number, not to mention the vocal 32-year-old man who stood up and proclaimed his undying devotion to the singer in the middle of the show).