When Barbara Cook sings a song, she makes it sound as if you're hearing it for the first time. It doesn't matter if it's one of the songs that has become a signature for her, such as "Carolina in the Morning," or if it's an entirely new song, such as "Carolina in the Morning," or if it's an entirely new song, such as "Soon," which Barry Manilow wrote for her in a yet-to-be-released animated film in which she plays thumbelina's mother.
Cook sings these and two dozen others in "An Evening of Song," her one-woman revue at the Kennedy Center. This is her third Kennedy Center appearance; the last one was five years ago. And, though it barely seems possible, the years seem to have added even more depth and expression to the magnificent soprano voice of this former Broadway star, who created the roles of Marian, the librarian, in "The Music Man," Cunegonde in "Candide," and Amalia in "She Loves Me."
In the first half of the evening, Cook sings several numbers from her new album, "As Close as Pages in a Book," which is devoted to the work of the late lyricist Dorothy Fields. Her voice reveals a hint of her Southern heritage in composer Jimmy McHugh's "I Must Have That Man," which she ends with a grumbling groan of longing. The same song provides ample evidence of Fields' substantial lyric-writing skills, exemplified in the line: "I need that person much worse 'n just bad."
Those of us who were fortunate enough to see Cook in a Broadway musical will probably never give up hoping she'll return someday. In the meantime, there's some solace in the fact that when she sings a ballad, such as Amanda McBroom's "Ship in a Bottle," she does so with so much expression that it becomes a mini-musical.
Cook introduces this song by giving a plug to McBroom, the singer/songwriter who created and starred in "Heartbeats" at the Mechanic Theatre last month. This is a typical example of Cook's generosity to her fellow performers, and it surfaces again when she endorses the current Broadway revival of "She Loves Me." Interestingly, instead of singing one of Amalia's songs from that show, she sings "A Trip to the Library," which belongs to a different character, but which Cook says she always wanted to sing. (For purists, she does Amalia's "Ice Cream" as one of her encores.)
The song with which Cook has become most closely identified in this concert phase of her career also happens to have been sung by someone else on Broadway. However, Cook has "owned" Stephen Sondheim's "Loosing My Mind" ever since she sang it in the 1985 New York Philharmonic concert version of "Follies." As many times as I've heard her sing it, I'm still stumped to find adjectives that do justice to her rendition; suffice it to say it's worth the price of admission and the drive to Washington just to hear her interpretation.
As usual, Cook is accompanied by her long-time musical director, Wally Harper, whose fluid piano playing has become a seamless and essential part of her performance. They are joined on stage by bass player Jon Burr -- although Cook and Harper really don't need anyone else.
Most of all, what Cook doesn't need is the reverb miking that is tacked onto a few of her songs. This sort of electronic effect should be saved for singers who can only pretend to have Cook's natural ability to sustain a note. Cook is the genuine article. In case there's any doubt, at the end of the show she steps away from the mike entirely and sings Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do." Santa and all the elves couldn't deliver a better Christmas present.
"An Evening of Song"
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.
When: Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 5 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., Dec. 31 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., Jan. 1 at 7:30 p.m.; through Jan. 2
Tickets: $33-$35 (New Year's Eve $45)
Call: (800) 444-1324