“Mostly Sondheim," the show Barbara Cook performs at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Sunday and Monday nights when "Contact" is dark, might frighten people who focus on the second of its title's two words. They might be intimidated by the composer known for his brilliant but often astringent lyrics and melodies, whose sensuous sophistication can sometimes prove too heady for those accustomed to the rhythmic monotony that now passes for pop music. Such people should focus instead on the first word in the title, "Mostly," for, in addition to singing Sondheim, Cook performs a lot of songs Sondheim confessed he wishes he had written. (The confession was made two years ago, on his 70th birthday.) The range of these songs is eye-opening. Would you ever imagine the composer of "Every Day a Little Death" would have wanted to compose "The Trolley Song"? Not to mention "Hard Hearted Hannah"? Cook brings something unexpected to everything she sings. When she does "Lost in His Arms," from "Annie Get Your Gun," it is with a sense of astonishment. When she performs "San Francisco," she makes every note glow. Cook's voice is a natural wonder, especially at the end when she sings without accompaniment or amplification. It has a brilliant sheen in the upper register. She still sings "Ice Cream," from Bock and Harnick's "She Loves Me," though she admits that, at 73, "I give that B natural more thought than I used to." (From the clarion sound you wouldn't know it.) What makes the voice special is not just its agility and sparkle but the earth-mother warmth that radiates through every note. As for Sondheim, the splendid arrangements by Cook's longtime collaborator, Wally Harper, have a reflective quality. Often, as in "Another Hundred People," she takes a song noted for its brittle lyrics and sings it slowly, which makes it seem like an entirely new, more reflective piece. I admired the score for "Passion" greatly when it opened in 1994. I have almost never heard its songs since. To hear Cook sing them, spinning out their long, sinuous lines with rare elegance, makes them seem even more beautiful and profound. No one is credited with the lighting that underscores the emotions of the evening. Nor is anyone credited with Cook's outfit, which is not flattering, though it does make you focus on her face, which beams generosity. "Mostly Sondheim" is about a great voice bringing great intelligence to great material. The Japanese designate certain artists Living National Treasures. If we had that category, Cook would certainly qualify.
She sails onto the Vivian Beaumont stage like a radiantly welcoming hostess - happy and only slightly surprised to find her guests assembled and waiting. Waiting, moreover, with bated breath.
She is Barbara Cook - who started as a Broadway ingenue and moved to stardom; now she is not merely a cult singer but a cult. Like all great recitalist singers, she seems to sing to each member of the audience individually.
She's had her good times and bad times...and when she sings, both hang out with her, molding a phrase here, suggesting a break there.
Cook is 74 now. Had she been an opera singer, she would be giving master classes (which she does, incidentally) and signing autographs.
But since her first big break on Broadway (as Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein's 1956 "Candide"), the hand-held microphone has become her confidante and ally. She's also acquired another major ally in her musical arranger and pianist, the stylish Wally Harper.
Together in the beautifully chosen program "Mostly Sondheim" - featuring songs by Stephen Sondheim, or taken from an evening Sondheim called "Songs I Wish I'd Written" - and ably assisted by Jon Burr on bass, they're a formidable combination, giving a special transparency to the alchemy of Sondheim's words and music, which magically interweave as impulses from the same mind.
Transparent is perhaps the word. Cook's voice has no instantly recognizable characteristic sound. When she sings "The Trolley Song," you can hear in your imagination Judy Garland singing a descant behind her.
Yet in a standard such as "Send in the Clowns," handsomely covered by everyone from Streisand to Sinatra, Cook can still ring out a thread of drama that is simply heartbreaking. And when she sings a couple of songs from what I maintain is Sondheim's greatest work, "Passion," the world stands still.
What a privilege it is to hear her in this unexpected prime.
The first thing to acknowledge is simple incredulity. Barbara Cook -- whose sublime evening of song, ''Mostly Sondheim,'' is being presented on Sundays and Mondays through Feb. 11 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center -- is 74. But if you closed your eyes and just listened, you'd never know it. Her soprano pipes sound prime of life like: mellifluous, rangy, bell clear and either full or delicate, as necessary. And her voice fills the vertical silo space of the Beaumont as easily as if it were a broom closet.
But even with eyes open, you're likely to be surprised. Ms. Cook, hardly the lithe ingénue of half a century ago, may be physically rotund, but she holds the stage with decisive, stolid grace. So not only does she sing like a woman half her age, she moves like a woman half her size. Accompanied by her longtime music director, Wally Harper, on piano, and Jon Burr on bass, she seems to be defying time and gravity.
Though she's old enough to be giving a valedictory concert, Ms. Cook doesn't appear to be going anywhere. The only nostalgia in the show, on a stage where she first performed 30 years ago, is in her practiced (and engaging) banter. (Well, mostly engaging; she does get a little soupy on the subject of Mr. Sondheim's achievements.) Otherwise, her attitude is one of a performer fully cognizant that she's executing a tour de force for theatergoers who revere her and expect no less. Playing with great professional élan before a preview audience packed with critics, she took advantage of the good will to deliver a couple of zingers at the press, one of which seemed to satisfy a vengeful itch three decades old.
The program, a cabaret-style evening that she has been working variations on for the last two years, is an homage to Mr. Sondheim, though he wrote only about half of the two dozen or so songs that were arranged with quiet, crisp simplicity by Mr. Harper. The others were taken, Ms. Cook informs the audience, from a list of songs that Mr. Sondheim said he wished he'd written.
He does, no surprise, have great taste, and his choices -- from the torchy ''I Had Myself a True Love'' (from ''St. Louis Woman'') by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, to Irving Berlin's self-help pep talk for Annie Oakley, ''You Can't Get a Man With a Gun,'' to ''Ice Cream,'' the swoony tune by Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick that Ms. Cook, as a youthful Broadway star, delivered in the original production of ''She Loves Me'' -- are presented here with the kind of vitality and musicianship that will make older members of the audience yearn for the days when music for the theater was at the center of American popular culture.
Mostly these are songs that predated Mr. Sondheim's own career, and you can hear that they prefigure it, too; in them you hear harbingers of Mr. Sondheim's predilection for unexpected rhythmic diversion, plaintive harmony, fierce and fiercely ambiguous emotion, sardonic wordplay and resigned affection for human foible.
Still, it is Mr. Sondheim's own songs that provide Ms. Cook with her finest moments. Perhaps I'm not old enough to know better; I was, after all, listening with contemporary ears. But it seems to me also that Ms. Cook's straightforward phrasing and melodic precision are particularly well suited for the layered and often contradictory feelings Mr. Sondheim is perpetually exploring.
The exactness of her attack, the clarity of each note and its utterly certain place in a phrase, her confident, musical decision making that lets you understand that as a singer she is acting the song: all of these are terrifically useful tools in interpreting music that is nothing if not adult. Her performance exudes not just musicianship but earned wisdom.
Ms. Cook's Sondheim offerings include helpings of his familiar angst (''Another Hundred People''), jaunty contrariness (''Everybody Says Don't'') and rue (''Send in the Clowns'' of course and as an encore ''Anyone Can Whistle''). But she has also selected some less well-known material with felicitous results; the show's highlights may well be Ms. Cook's plaintive renditions of ''Happiness'' and ''Loving You'' -- two piercing songs about the fearsomeness of love from the underappreciated score of ''Passion'' -- sung one right after the other with a terror of heartbreak that isn't exactly what one expects in a septuagenarian.
If you listen for it very, very closely -- and ultimately this isn't recommended -- you might detect, toward the end of Ms. Cook's intermissionless 90 minutes onstage, a weariness creeping into her voice. And indeed after one particularly deft leap to the upper register in ''Ice Cream,'' she confessed: ''I have to admit I give that B natural a little more thought than I used to.''
But Ms. Cook has more left than most singers have ever had. And she's learned a few tricks. Among other things, she knows when not to trespass on another performer's repertory. But even if she doesn't give voice to this particular Sondheimian sentiment, she is, as vividly as her remarkable contemporary Elaine Stritch, still here.
Barbara Cook is entirely sublime in "Mostly Sondheim," her silky-smooth concert celebrating this prickliest of Broadway composers and some of his favorite songs by other authors. Still in beautiful voice at 74, Cook sings Sondheim with an embracing humanity that wonderfully warms up the composer's sometimes chilly reflections on the foibles of living and loving. She digs into the songs' dense layers of lyrical eloquence and glides easily atop their subtle melodic structures, revealing the glittering ore of heartache buried inside.
The show, which is playing for just a few more Sunday and Monday nights at the Vivian Beaumont, has the easy intimacy of a cabaret act -- as indeed it originally was, more than a year ago, when it was first performed at Michael Feinstein's supper club. Variations on the show have since been seen at Carnegie Hall and in London, but it's lost absolutely none of its bloom.
Nor, to an amazing degree, has Cook's famously limpid soprano. It's true that there's now a thin layer of smoke resting atop its crystalline depths, but this only serves to give her voice a sound that suggests years of emotional seasoning. What could be more apt for singing Sondheim, a composer who has always been primarily interested in what happens to the ingenue after the curtain comes down on that supposedly happy ending?
The list of vocal performances that each are worth the price of admission would have to begin with Cook's amazing redemption of "Send in the Clowns," a Sondheim favorite that has become so familiar its treasures are easy to overlook. It's become a song you can listen to without hearing it, until now: In Cook's heart-stopping version, you recognize again the expansive emotional reach belied by the clipped brevity of its phrases. And Cook manages to invest the pauses between stanzas with as much suppressed emotion as the notes themselves carry.
No less resonant are her selections from "Follies." The celebrated 1985 concert version of this musical was Cook's first major encounter with Sondheim, and her understanding of the frustrated dreamer in Sally Durant has only deepened with the years.
Purity, restraint and attention to the specific emotional color of each phrase are the hallmarks of Cook's approach to singing, and they pay major dividends in her achingly bittersweet performance of "In Buddy's Eyes" and her softly steely, ardent attack on "Losing My Mind."
That's not to say the lady can't swing, of course. Swing she does, gloriously, on many of the non-Sondheim songs judiciously selected from a list Sondheim himself made of tunes he wishes he'd written.
She revels in the rhythmic sass of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's "Buds Won't Bud" and the lyrical gags of Irving Berlin's "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," and dotes on the saucy double entendres of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "When in Rome."
And let's not forget dessert: An evening with Barbara Cook wouldn't be complete without a helping of "Ice Cream," the tour de force from "She Loves Me" that she still performs with the ebullience you can hear on the original cast album. (Climactic B-natural included!)
Indeed, it's Cook's great good fortune, and of course ours, that she's arrived at a point where nothing is outside her emotional range -- neither the painful wisdom of Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" nor the youthful delight of "The Trolley Song" -- and yet almost nothing is outside her vocal range, either. (OK, maybe "Glitter and Be Gay," as she wryly admits.)
Her rapport with an audience is just as all-embracing: By the end of this remarkable evening, songs, singer and audience seem to have fused. When Cook puts down the microphone for her last song, a peerless performance of "Anyone Can Whistle," we don't have to strain to hear a note -- the song seems to be coming not from a performer on a stage but from the recesses of our own heart.