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Koch International presents
Mostly Sondheim (2002)

"There are very few people who would argue with the idea that Pablo Picasso was the seminal force in art in this past century and I think the same thing is true with Stephen in the second half of the century as far as our American musical theater goes. I think there's just nobody who could've imagined the kind of journey he's taken us on, the extraordinary things he's given us; just amazing, amazing work."
- Barbara Cook

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: May 19, 2003

Stars: Barbara Cook
Other Stars: Wally Harper, Jon Burr
Director: Jim Brown

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:26m:32s
Release Date: May 20, 2003
UPC: 021471800197
Genre: music

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

There aren't many grande dames left in American musical theater, but Barbara Cook is certainly one of them. The veteran cabaret songstress, who originated the role of Marian the Librarian in the stage production of The Music Man, once was hailed as "Broadway's favorite ingénue." Now 75, her blonde curls straightened and streaked with gray, she continues to perform at a level her contemporaries can only envy. Her latest endeavor, a charming if not entirely successful musical pastiche, salutes American popular song in general and the work of composer Stephen Sondheim in particular.

Mostly Sondheim cleverly weaves together many Sondheim anthems with classic songs by other legendary composers. As part of her on-stage patter, Cook recalls how a New York Times Magazine article commemorating Sondheim's 70th birthday inspired her to mount this tribute. Within the article was a list of 50 songs Sondheim said he wished he had written—and Cook plucks out several to round out her show. She wisely abandons formality and injects plenty of animated conversation into the almost 90-minute performance. Between songs, she reminisces, jokes, and occasionally pontificates in an easy-going yet highly articulate manner filled with good humor and sly self-deprecation. Backed by her long-time accompanist Wally Harper on piano and Jon Burr on bass, Cook performs 19 songs, with her rotund, regal presence enhancing the already potent material.

While entertaining and often surprising, the musical line-up is not the greatest hits compilation I anticipated and desired. Instead, Cook fills her bill with more obscure tunes that, while elegantly presented, may appeal only to the staunchest Sondheim admirers. Yes, she sings Send in the Clowns, but it's her only concession to Sondheim pop. The result is a bit unsatisfying, and left me pining for Cook's (or anyone's) renditions of Sondheim's classics.

Interestingly, many of the best moments come courtesy of other composers. Cook performs a bouncy Buds Won't Bud by Harold Arlen, revels in the comic lyrics of Irving Berlin's You Can't Get A Man With A Gun, and indulges in a "Frank Sinatra moment" with Cy Coleman's When in Rome (I Do As the Romans Do). Perhaps her best Sondheim interpretation is the beautifully simple, heartfelt Loving You from Passions.

Age has shortened Cook's vocal range somewhat, but her purity of tone remains. Her voice could easily pass for one far younger, and her ability to adapt to and put over any lyric gives each song its own identity. Unfortunately, Cook's performing style is rather static, with movement and gestures used too sparingly. She seems content to let the songs speak for themselves, and while the music provides many sparks, Cook herself lacks the electricity necessary for a riveting concert video. As a result, the presentation can become tiresome over time.

Still, Mostly Sondheim is mostly successful and Cook is mostly delightful. For Sondheim scholars, it's a must-own; for the rest of us, Cook and company provide a pleasant, one-night-only musical diversion.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Shot on video, the concert is strangely dark, with the deep blacks often overwhelming the image, making lines difficult to delineate. Close-ups are crisp and vivid, but long shots reveal a very distracting shimmer on the floor-to-ceiling curtain that serves as a backdrop. Audience shots are also a bit murky. Despite these annoyances, the transfer is sufficient, especially for this genre, and doesn't detract from the performance.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both DD 5.1 and basic stereo are included, with the 5.1 track the clear winner. An opening credit card triumphantly states the surround mixes were created from the digital multi-track recording and "represents a true surround sound mix." Audiophiles won't be disappointed. The sound is so full and vibrant you feel as if you really have a front row seat in a concert hall. Especially soothing is the light bass, which comes through at just the proper level to add color and texture to Cook's vocal style. The surrounds are active, but unobtrusive (except during applause), and Cook's voice rings through with a clarity few discs of this type possess. By comparison, the stereo mix sounds flat, but is still pleasing to the ear.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Music/Song Access with 19 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:04m:59s

Extra Extras:
  1. Barbara Cook's Complete Discography on DRG Records
Extras Review: While Cook's personality comes across in spades during the concert, the few extras on the disc delve deeper into her performing philosophy and spotlight her commitment to helping the next generation of theatrical singers. Excerpts from one of the many master classes Cook teaches each year are especially interesting, as she helps her students inject more feeling and naturalness into their performances. Portions of a one-on-one interview with Cook taped after the class shed additional light on her passion and respect for the musical art form.

An interactive discography of Cook's seven DRG CDs is also included, featuring album covers and audio clips spanning 20 years.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Mostly Sondheim is more than a celebration of fine music; it's also a celebration of Barbara Cook and her indomitable talent and spirit. While the song selection could have leaned slightly more toward audience favorites, and the video quality should have been improved, Cook and her crew still manage to present a memorable evening of musical gems.


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