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Just a couple of Broadway babies

Barbara Cook and Audra McDonald show the way around songs old and new in O.C.

January 08, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

"I wanna be like you when I grow up," Audra McDonald playfully said to Barbara Cook during their joint concert Friday in Costa Mesa.

"What do you mean, 'grow up'?" Cook shot back. "I haven't grown up yet." Seemingly off the cuff, the exchange crackled with meaning. For starters, Cook and McDonald possess strikingly similar voices: substantial, ringing and classical, yet loose, lively and imbued with popular idioms. Then too they have accomplished many of the same things in their Broadway and concert careers. As for the age difference, Cook, at 79, still sings with youthful sparkle, while McDonald, at 36, has for at least a decade already sung with the command of someone of Cook's stature.

Afforded the rare treat of hearing them together, the audience in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall responded with rapt attention and appreciative, occasionally giddy applause.

A year ago, McDonald joined Cook, as did Josh Groban, when Cook was invited to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. McDonald performed then as a guest; this time, she was an equal. The 95-minute concert was divided evenly into solo segments, interspersed with the occasional duet.

The evening's stated mission was for Cook to sample Broadway songs from her era (you might recall that she created the roles of Cunegonde in "Candide" in 1956, Marian in "The Music Man" in 1957 and Amalia in "She Loves Me" in 1963) and for McDonald (who won two of her four Tonys for portraying Carrie in the 1994 revival of "Carousel" and for originating the role of Sarah in "Ragtime" in 1998) to sing material by today's songwriters for the stage.

Cook gave Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" a jazzy interpretation, with a percussive, propulsive strut. She then turned languorous as she essayed the songwriting pair's "This Nearly Was Mine." The final notes floated, mist-like, in a focused, sustained pianissimo.

The romantic view of life -- the protective circle of a loved one's embrace and all that -- was briefly shattered later, when Cook looked at the wider world and found renewed urgency in Stephen Sondheim's "No More." McDonald, whose concerts and recordings have championed current composers, performed songs by several of them, including "Stars and the Moon" by Jason Robert Brown and the title song from "The Light in the Piazza" by Adam Guettel. When she too turned to the classics, she stopped short, laughed and said, "I have some nerve," because she was about to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well Be Spring," which Cook had performed at the Met.

Herself a performing mother, McDonald coaxed troubled insight out of Sondheim's "The Glamorous Life." Doubt melted away, though, as she abandoned herself to shout-from-the-rooftops rapture in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's "When Did I Fall in Love?" The four duets included a zippy, soaring rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," in which Cook's and McDonald's voices embraced with sisterly affection. Cook's soprano, though pitched somewhat higher, turns golden in its middle to lower range, while McDonald's is more like deepening dusk, with the promise of midnight. The complementary sounds further underscored the similarities between these two extraordinary singers.

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