By Don Heckman
Northridge, CA. One of the first times (and there were many) that I reviewed a Michael Feinstein performance was in 1991 for the Los Angeles Times. I described him then as a “reincarnation of a classic movie juvenile lead. Slicked-back Dick Powell hair, flashing Russ Columbo eyes, a smile that would charm the Sphinx.”
Twenty two years later, Feinstein – now 56 – could still come pretty close to that image of the movie juvenile lead. When he strolled on stage Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center, slender and full of vitality, his warm smile gleaming, he was still as dynamic and vital as he was two decades ago.
In the interim, of course, Feinstein has thoroughly established himself as one of the prime devoted caretakers of American popular song. His archivist’s dedication to preserving the classic works of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, Mercer and so many others has continued to grow over the years. And, equally important, he has personally taken on the challenge of keeping those works alive in performance.
Feinstein has always been a fine singer/pianist, the high quality of his abilities apparent even in his early, cabaret performances in the ’80s at the Cinegrill. But his appearance at VPAC was the work of a mature, masterful performing artist. Far more than simply singing the classics from the Great American Songbook, Feinstein was as informative as he was entertaining.
Each song was introduced with background information about the composer and/or lyricist, often with whimsical stories about the circumstances behind the creation of the song. Many of Feinstein’s comments traced to his personal associations with the songwriters. One example: his long term friendship with Ira Gershwin, tracing to a period when he worked as Gershwin’s personal assistant. That connection was the starting point for Feinstein’s recently published book, The Gershwins and Me (Simon & Schuster).
Celebrating his Gershwin linkage, he sang a superb medley of Gershwin songs – including “Of Thee I Sing,” “S’Wonderful,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
The rest of the program was a banquet of musical goodies. Since it was May 11, Irving Berlin’s birthday, Feinstein did a marvelously hard-swinging “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” On “Hello, Dolly” he offered a loving simulation of Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice, recalling one of the song’s most unique interpretations. On “Fly Me To The Moon,” he referred to the desire of Bart Howard, the songwriter, to hear it in his original conception of it as a waltz, rather than the rhythmically upbeat version by Frank Sinatra. And Feinstein, with the aid of guitarist Jim Fox, found the deep, lyrical center of the tune. He chose to cast “The Way You Look Tonight” as a bossa nova, and recalled Sammy Davis, Jr. with an atmospheric rendering of “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
There was much more. Songs such as “Shall We Dance” (sung with the verse), “Put On A Happy Face,” “Just One Of Those Things” and “At Long Last Love,” among others. All of it brilliantly arranged by pianist/music director Sam Kriger.
It was, in other words, a delightful musical evening on all counts. And it was topped off with the additional good news that Feinstein will be spending more performance time in the Southland in coming months. He has been appointed Principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena POPS, replacing the late Marvin Hamlisch. Feinstein’s first program with the Pops takes place on June 1.
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