Photo Credit: D. Sabella

KT Sullivan
“I Can Cook” – When Barbara Met Wally
Birdland Theater
Feb 27, March 1 & 2, 2019

“Sing a song with me,” came a voice from behind the curtain, “to ease your worries …”  Each lovely note sustained, and colored with that distinctive honk which characterized the resonance of the late and very great Barbara Cook.  “Sing a song with me to touch your heart …”  That was Wally Harper’s familiar arrangement of one of Cook’s favorite opening numbers which Jon Weber was playing.  My companion and I exchanged glances: were we hearing a recording of Barbara Cook in concert?

Then KT Sullivan stepped onstage.

“I Can Cook: When Barbara Met Wally” is Sullivan’s tribute to Cook and Harper’s artistic symbiosis: singer and pianist; diva and orchestra; muse and savior.

Barbara Cook’s career was in the toilet when Wally Harper came into her life.  She was depressed, alcoholic, obese, broke, and barely working.  She needed a pianist for a potential concert date; they booked a getting-to-know-you session—and discovered in one another a musical soulmate.  They made music together for thirty years, and much of that work is preserved in recordings—Harper’s unique settings of pop and Broadway standards as well as his own originals, given life by Cook’s interpretive genius and her voice like a cascade of diamonds on velvet.

Those are some mighty big shoes to fill.  Wisely, Sullivan did not attempt to fill them.

Sullivan has a light, almost diaphanous touch, vocally as well as expressively.  Her art is a subtle one, but no less effective for that.  For this show, she treated us to rather more of her voice than we generally have the pleasure of hearing, every so often allowing it to resonate with that Barbara Cook-like tone, as if Cook’s spirit were hovering around the Birdland Theatre stage, making one last ghostly appearance from beyond the grave.  “When Barbara Cook sings,” Sullivan said, “you feel like you’re taking a long warm bath—in vowels.”  

Sullivan interwove the story of Cook and Harper’s partnership with anecdotes from her own life: her experience putting a show together with Lillias White and Harper himself (he smoked obsessively); her first cabaret engagement—at a lesbian bar where she seemed to be bombing until someone yelled, “Hey, she sounds like Barbara Cook!”  And she confessed that her necklace had once belonged to Cook herself (I’d love to hear that backstory!).

The set list included many of Cook’s most memorable concert numbers, arrangements painstakingly transcribed for piano by musical director Weber, who played with a dynamic range and sensitivity to Sullivan’s timing worthy of Harper himself.  Ballads such as the sinuous Lullaby In Ragtime (Sylvia Fine) and Jerry Herman’s exquisite Marianne were sheer ear candy—but even more effective was Will He Like Me? (Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock), which Sullivan sang into a dressing room mirror, imagining Cook’s state of mind moments before she made her cabaret debut at Brothers and Sisters. 

Sullivan reveled in Harper’s broad, high-vaudeville arrangement of I Love A Piano (Irving Berlin), but was otherwise generally restrained in the uptempo numbers.  I have never heard I Can Cook Too (Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein) performed with such pinpoint subtlety.  Weber did his best to impersonate an orchestra in It’s Better With A Band (David Zippel, Harper), a song it’s impossible not to love, even if it would have been better with a band.  And Sullivan wowed the audience with an ever-accelerating take on Sweet Georgia Brown (Ken Casey, Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard).

Any artist who does a tribute show runs the risk of being compared with the object of her tribute.  Sullivan has such a realized presence that she generally avoided such comparisons, but my two favorite numbers were the most Sullivanesque of the evening: a tender, understated Ain’t Love Easy (Carol Hall), and the encore, If Love Were All (Noël Coward), performed without a mic, a bemused, allegretto meditation on life as “a humble diseuse.”  That one simple lyric change was the perfect way for Sullivan to distinguish her own artistry from that of Cook—a chanteuse for the ages in whose shadow we are all humble.

Eric Michael Gillett directed.