Michael Feinstein is a true phenomenon of our time. He is a pleasant-looking young man with a pleasant voice and a pleasant style of singing old songs. He is a skillful pianist and an engaging performer. Nothing exceptional.
Yet he has been lionized as few young non-rock singers have. I suspect the reason is that people are so desparately hungry to hear the kind of music he sings that, like starving people given a crumb of bread, they are convinced they have received manna from heaven.
I, too, love old theater music. But when I hear it in the theater, I want more than a pretty, Johnny Mathis-like sound. I want a real theater energy, a sense of the songs as miniature dramas. In nightclubs all that matters is mood, and that Feinstein can set it beautifully. But he doesn't generate enough excitement to fill a stage.
Even his repertoire is fairly standard. After all, he worked with Ira Gershwin for six years going through unpublished material. But he performs little of it. He also pays tribute to another former employer, Harry Warren - unimaginatively.
He has some warm moments singing Noel Coward's "Sail Away" and two songs from Jerry Herman's "Mack and Mabel," but his arrangements are seldom inspired.
The most dramatic moment comes when the magnificent interior of the Lyceum is suddenly lit. You thank God for the Landmarks Commission and you have a sense of grand theatricality the rest of the evening lacks.
Michael Feinstein, as the old song has it, loves a piano, and the piano loves him. Their mutual affection, together with a singing voice poised somewhere somewhere between Astaire and Aznavour, has brought this new young master of America's classic pop to the place where he and his heart belong - Broadway.
He opened last night at the Lyceum Theater in a show called, with self-descriptive deprecation, "Michael Feinstein in Concert."
I suppose it is a concert, but it is really much more, because this basic saloon singer has an effortlessly theatrical personality, and he takes to a stage as if he had just bought the theater.
Looking like a fallen cherub, replete with tight curls, dimples and a grin that appears ingeniously contrived to seem ingenuously spontaneous, he is a naturalistic actor with a flair for show-biz mimicry.
He is wonderfully entertaining - partly through his enthusiasm, for he ransacks the treasure hoards of Broadway and Hollywood pop like a starving kid in a candy store, partly through his rare ability to reassemble and redefine former pop styles giving them a totally contemporary and personalized new imprint, and partly through his impeccable yet catholic taste.
His show has been "conceived" - whatever that means - by Feinstein himself and Christopher Chadman, and Chadman has staged it, making the most of his star's slightly-aging boyish personality, his mobile presence - for he moves extraordinarily well - and his unforced gift for Broadway schtik and Hollywood schmalz.
Feinstein's voice is individual. A mixture of a bleat and a belt, it has a breathy production, particularly in its false high register, and a frequent emotional quaver. The technique is serviceable - he is no Torme or Sinatra - and the sincerity comes over like a vibrato.
His piano playing proves showy and aggressive, yet, like the voice, perfectly molded to its purpose - which is to make the music live, and to make it intimate. Even his manner - which is so often that of a kid, encouraged by over-doting parents, showing off at an adult party - seems bouncily just right.
His range is considerable. He starts in a romantic mood, with "Isn't It Romantic," moving straight along into "Taking a Chance on Love." But soon, with an Irving Berlin medley, he is starting to show his really dazzling versatility, and his ability to get to the heart of almost any worthwhile show tune.
The approach is always the same - whether he's singing a torch ballad like the Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal "I'll Be Seeing You," a novelty number such as Spike Jones' adaptation of Rossini's "Largo al Factotum," or such comedy pieces as the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg number "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," or Cole Porter's "Can-Can" - he pays enormous attention to the lyrics, and lets the musical phrasing take care of itself. And with a good song - he is careful to pick only good songs - it never fails.
At times, particularly when he is overdoing the precocious wunderkind bit, he can be too cute, and his attempt at musical humor, showing how Ira Gershwin's lyrics might have gone with other composers, proved embarrassingly puerile.
But, luckily, there is little enough of that, and when he is at his best in, say, a tribute to Gershwin or George M. Cohan, and a lovely medley of Harry Warren, including "The Lullaby of Broadway," he is absolutely terrific.
His orchestrations by Ian Finkel and his arrangements by his music director, David Spear, are as impeccable as his own artistry, and also as traditionally original.
The excellent six-piece orchestra, led by pianist Elliot Finkel, plays a vital part in the evening's proceedings, and indeed, one of the highlights of the show is the overture to the second act, a "dueling piano" conspectus of Broadway show music, brilliantly played by Finkel and Feinstein himself.
What is consistently on display is Feinstein's cultivated and delightful musical sensibility, and his heartfelt, heart-warming love and enthusiasm - so communicable you can almost touch them - for the music he is helping preserve.
The vernacular music of Broadway really is a very precious heritage, and there is a certain musicological zeal here that seems to inform, and certainly inspire, the zest of Feinstein's performing style.
But it is the zest that eventually makes the evening, the zest and the taste, all adding up to a young man who loves a piano - a new-fangled, old-fashioned phenomenon called Michael Feinstein. Do not miss him. It's a limited engagement. Run along and get the beauty of it while it's hot!
Michael Feinstein has moved his fascination with the Broadway musical theater from the cozy intimacy of his customary New York home, the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, to a relatively intimate Broadway theater, the Lyceum, where he will be singing and playing the piano for the next four weeks.
This has allowed him to open up his performance a bit - to stroll away from the piano, to leap up on it with more agility than Helen Morgan ever showed, to shuffle through a minimal dance, to play some two-piano duets with his conductor, Elliot Finkel, and to have the accompaniment of the lively and versatile sextet that Mr. Finkel conducts. But essentially he is still exploring the Broadway musicals and their West Coast branch, the film musicals, that he knows so well, singing ballads with a soft, warm intimacy that takes on a brassy ring when he rises to a climactic belt.
The charm of Mr. Feinstein's approach is that he manages to offer just enough of the very familiar to create a sense of recognition for anyone in his audience (who doesn't know ''Alexander's Ragtime Band'' or ''I Got Rhythm''?) while venturing into slightly forgotten or unknown areas. He goes back as far as 1903 for a typical George M. Cohan song, ''I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune,'' and gives his support to such more recent and undeservedly neglected songs as Jerry Herman's score for ''Mack and Mabel'' and a lively song, ''Loopin' the Loop,'' written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for ''Chicago.''
There are segments of Irving Berlin songs and of Gershwin songs, but Mr. Feinstein's strongest emphasis is on the songs of Harry Warren, to whom Mr. Feinstein was an apprentice and for whom he has ''undiluted idolatry.'' Although Mr. Warren is known best for the Hollywood musicals to which he contributed in the 1930's and 40's, he had a Broadway career before he went west. Mr. Feinstein draws on both periods - ''You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby'' along with ''Lulu's Back in Town,'' ''42d Street'' and ''I Only Have Eyes for You'' - and he climaxes this performance in a Broadway theater with Mr. Warren's ''Lullaby of Broadway.''
To cram a broad representation of Mr. Warren's work into a very limited time, Mr. Feinstein reduces most of the songs to a few lines each, an approach he uses frequently throughout the evening. Although this brings a sense of kaleidoscopic variety to his program, it leaves the songs in a blur of unresolved lyrics and melodies, which usually does less than justice to material that Mr. Feinstein so obviously admires.