By Stanford Friedman
When you’re an official partner of the supper club at which you are performing, it must feel bittersweet to have to pause your act so that the front row table can receive its coffee. Such was the brief dilemma at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Tuesday night when the multi-talented Michael Feinstein took the stage just as a waiter wandered into his line of sight with a hot cup of Joe. Thankfully, the moment was handled graciously. And, as it turns out, there was never any need for caffeine in the first place, given the energetic ride that was about to take off.
Being both partner and performer was not the most important dichotomy on display during this set of a dozen numbers sung by the famed crooner on the cusp of his 65th birthday. Backed up by the excellent Tedd Firth on piano, Mark McClean on drums and David Finck on bass, the more fascinating split involved the battle between Feinstein the creative musical artist and Feinstein the historian in charge of overseeing the Great American Songbook. On this night, the two sides of his persona fought to a draw, offering something for everyone: classic show tunes sung dutifully, a couple lesser known ditties, requests for Gershwin from the audience, beautifully rendered ballads, zing zing zing of the heartstrings, and a misguided medley that wowed the crowd nonetheless.
Granted, Feinstein aside a Steinway is way fine nearly anytime. But in this venue, which craves intimacy, he shined especially bright when performing the emotional 1970’s era ballads that he probably first swayed to in his teens. There was the plaintive Paul Williams/Kenny Ascher hit, “You and Me Against the World” and James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” which was intricately paired with the Bacharach/David classic, “One Less Bell to Answer.”
Musical aficionados were put into a rare mood with “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon and felt the thump, thump, thump of “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis. They also received a lesson on Marshall Barer, the otherwise obscure lyricist for Once Upon a Mattress. Feinstein performed Barer’s inspirational “The Time Has Come,” a tribute to Gay Pride that borrows from Lewis Carroll.
The potentially awesome finale involved a medley of hits made famous by Frank Sinatra, pitting Feinstein, the master of many styles, against the canon of Ol’ Blue Eyes, who made every song his own. Unfortunately, so many tunes were crammed into the melange that, like a car radio channeling through scan mode, only brief ear worms made it out alive, with no time for audience or artist to properly reflect, before moving on to the next. One moment it was a foggy day in London town, then the summer wind came blowin’ in; I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, king of the hill, top of the heap. It’s witchcraft.
If Feinstein was ultra-smooth, Firth, at the piano, was magnificently edgy, providing several great solos with his signature style that suggests the music is playing him, rather than the other way around. He is the perfect foil for Feinstein who sings with a tenor so beautifully polished that the notes slide from his throat with no hint of friction, at times revving up to a volume that would fill an arena. Those moments provided a welcomed roar, loud and live, a joyful noise after a year of pandemic silence.
Michael Feinstein: Summertime Swing!
WITH: Michael Feinstein, Tedd Firth, Mark McClean and David Finck.
Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th St., www.54below.com, (646) 476-3551. Through September 6 at 7:00 pm. Running time: 90 minutes. Proof of vaccination required.