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Tears Over Clowns

Local singers take a walk through Cook's fire.


The day after delivering a sumptuous concert at the Folly Theater, Broadway legend Barbara Cook let down her hair and conducted a master class at Quality Hill Playhouse. Six local vocalists brought a song or two to perform for Cook, whose message was that they could be better singers if they shook the idea that they were "singers." In other words, deliver the song as true to yourself as possible, with little or no artifice.

The two-hour class provided a moving, and at times uncomfortable, view inside a private process usually reserved for rehearsals -- or therapists' offices. By the time it was over, no visible blood had been shed -- but there'd been plenty of sweat and tears.

Melinda MacDonald, now appearing in the American Heartland Theatre's Uh Oh, Here Comes Christmas, took the first position. (She had to leave early for a 2 p.m. matinee.) MacDonald stood at the piano like a classy saloon singer and gave a polished rendition of the ballad "Why Did I Choose You?" Cook called it "lovely" but added that perhaps MacDonald was trying too hard to charm the audience. She thought MacDonald had "telegraphed" the song -- performed it rather than felt it.

When Cook hears a song, she wants to believe that a performer has lived its lyrics, not just memorized them; otherwise, she contends, barriers between artist and audience remain impenetrable. Facing this charge, MacDonald grew a tad defensive, but something stronger than peevishness was taking hold. "You look like a lady who has loved before," Cook said -- and MacDonald started to cry. Cook implored her to sing through these feelings, and there was a shift in MacDonald's second try. Though just as tuneful as before, the song became a painful dirge to romantic ambivalence.

"I thought she was complimentary of me but wanted to push it further," MacDonald said later. "As actors, we need to find those emotional points. But the audience doesn't want to see the actor fall apart. I think it's self-indulgent. I wish I had had more of a grip on those emotions. But did I learn anything new? No."

William Jewell College student Erin Talbert's lesson was more brutal.

"I don't believe a word of it," Cook said after Talbert sang a few bars of The Secret Garden's "How Could I Ever Know." Merely proving you can sing, Cook argued, was akin to "vocal masturbation." She said Talbert needed "to work on pitch" and went so far as to suggest she consider getting "a different teacher."

Faring better was UMKC Conservatory student Dustin Cates, who makes his Late Night Theatre debut in A Scarrie Carrie Christmas Carol later this month. After hearing his take on Cole Porter's "All Through the Night," Cook said Cates had good instincts, then grew a little flirty. "You don't look too bad, either," she said. "That helps in this business."

"I have been in master classes before, but not with anyone of her magnitude," Cates said later. "I agreed with her when she said, 'If you hide your emotions, the performance is ruined.'" He added, though, that as he watched other students start to cry, he was steeling himself to avoid their fate.

Toni Gates-Grantham, who appears in Quality Hill Playhouse's upcoming Christmas in Song, chose "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. It was a naïve choice given that Cook had sung the hell out of it just ten hours earlier, and Gates-Grantham hadn't done her homework. In Sondheim's show, the song is performed by an aging actress deathly afraid that she's seen her last happiness. But Gates-Grantham didn't know the show or the song's context.

Cook sensed this like a shark smelling blood. After Gates-Grantham's decent but unevenly paced rendition, Cook sat her down and dissected the song line by line. When Gates-Grantham arrived at Isn't it bliss ... ? a second time, the barrier Cook had noticed earlier evaporated and the student finished an improved version -- through tears.

Jewell student Liz Drevits made a wobbly foray into a song from 110 in the Shade before she, too, choked up. By that point, it was as if the audience's -- and Cook's -- sympathy had become dependent on weeping. When Cook asked her what the tears were about, Drevits sat stone-faced for a few minutes, then said, "I don't know." Cook didn't say much. And when she started singing anew, Drevits pretended to (or tried to make herself) cry. But there were no tears. Drevits' youth and inexperience were no match for Cook, who could have pulverized her. Instead, Cook wisely moved on.

The class ended with a love fest between Cook and Phil Fiorini, who sang Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So."

"You've got it," Cook said, blessing Fiorini for his "good taste" and asking that he sing his other selection, from Carnival.

Though he survived his numbers dry-eyed, Fiorini hadn't been spared the heavy emotions. "I cried several times during and after the class," he admitted later. He was already feeling a bit raw, having learned earlier in the week that former Kansas City singer Randy Christy, who had performed in several Quality Hill cabaret shows, had died in a car wreck in Boulder, Colorado. Fiorini said he and Christy had shared a stage in a Chicago production of Anyone Can Whistle -- a song Cook had performed for an unamplified encore the night before.

Fiorini, who is in rehearsal for the Unicorn's Bat Boy, agreed that Cook had been "easier on the men." Still, that didn't detract from the physical changes he had endured during the class. "I had never felt anything like it," he said. "It was like I had left my body. It was terrifying but exhilarating. That's what made it so interesting."

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