The sad thing about gifted musical-comedy performers is the dearth of opportunities in that imperiled medium. This forces them into solo evenings that have their appeal despite a subsidiary quality not unlike halftime at a football game. Still, catching in rapid succession Donna McKechnie singing (and dancing bravely on a postage-stamp stage) at tiny Arci’s Place, and Barbara Cook singing and filling the vast space of the Vivian Beaumont, offered serial delights to nurture in grateful remembrance.
McKechnie calls her solo show My Musical Comedy Life and gave us a rapid survey of numbers she created or inherited over a career that began very early and has already lasted some 40 years, encompassing Loesser, Bacharach, Arlen, Herman, Gershwin, Coleman, Sondheim, and, of course, A Chorus Line. As a belter and dancer, she does best with up-tempo songs that cater to the kinetic and exuberant, but there is also that wide-eyed hopefulness of hers lighting up a melancholy number such as Cy Coleman’s “Where Am I Going?” She exudes an inexhaustible youthfulness and perkiness that gladden the heart as much as the eye and ear, and her pianist, Dick Gallagher, shares her gusto.
Cook, on the other hand, despite her early career in musicals, seems to be a – no, the – chanteuse born and bred. Her renditions go deep into her core as much as out into the auditorium: She lives through them and for them alike. Now well into her seventies, she has lost very little except a few high notes, and gained much in variety, penetration, and poignancy. She may no longer “glitter and be gay,” but she can still make “Ice Cream” sound irresistibly yummy. Her show, Mostly Sondheim – comprising songs Sondheim wrote or, according to his own admission, wishes he had written – is finely judged and constructed; her extraordinarily sensitive pianist, Wally Harper, must have had a third hand in its creation.
To be sure, for someone like me, who prefers his singers in the Elizabeth Futral-Angelika Kirchschlager mold, Barbara Cook’s girth might be a problem, as it was next door at the Met with Deborah Voigt in Die Frau ohne Schatten. But not so; partly because Cook is not impersonating a spirit empress, partly because of her wittily pointed patter between songs, and mostly because art like hers transcends the trammels of the flesh.
Donna McKechnie at Arci’s Place.
Barbara Cook at the Beaumont.