If ever a man were living in the past, it would have to be Michael Feinstein. The singer-pianist opened a four-week engagement Tuesday night at the John Golden Theater, and, according to the Playbill, he's 34. But judging from the age of the songs he likes to sing, he could have lived 70 years ago.
Nothing wrong with that. The songs he has picked are tried and true, mostly romantic and nostalgic, with a few nonsense numbers dropped in for variety. The program is warm, comfortable, neighborly, and you can bet the audience leaves the theater humming.
During this one-man show, he sits at his piano and chats about songs he's about to play or sing, giving a little of their history, explaining how he discovered them, telling a bit about his own background. Nice. A little cutesy sometimes, but nice just the same. A welcome addition came when composer Burton Lane ("Finian's Rainbow, "On a Clear Day") appeared and played and sang some of his tunes.
With four backup musicians added, the second half was livelier and included a Tin Pan Alley medley plus songs with Johnny Mercer lyrics.
Feinstein has an enviable cross-reference of songs stored in his mind. For some years, he was lyricist Ira Gershwin's assistant, cataloguing his records, music and memorabilia, meeting his friends and listening to his stories, so an interesting part of the evening is devoted to the prolific writing team the Gershwins were.
Feinstein has strung them together neatly. For example: George Gershwin's first published song was "Swanee." Al Jolson's version made it into a hit. Jolson used to entertain troops during World War I. One of the numbers Jolson sang them was "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers," a tongue-twister if there ever was one, which Feinstein plays and sings also.
Though his voice is a bit reedy, his playing is sure, note-perfect and unfortunately, undistinguished.
Feinstein has a considerable reputation as a cabaret performer, and basically the evening at the Golden is an extension of that. Somehow I think I'd rather hear this program in a cabaret setting, with a drink in one hand and a dear friend holding the other.
For his third foray onto Broadway, Michael Feinstein, the wunderkind of the American songbook, returns to his roots. In "Piano and Voice," at the Golden Theater, Feinstein faces the audience armed at first only with his piano, his considerable repertoire and his no-less-considerable charm.
During that spare first act, Feinstein shows his scholarship, singing each song as written, with full verse and often an unknown lyric dropped or excised from the best-known versions. For every song, he seems to have a story that not only sets it up, but adds to your appreciation by putting it into context and filling it out with anecdotal spice.
A singer committed to the fact that standards were written not for the ermine and pearl crowd, but for everyman, Feinstein interprets his material in a manner that speaks not to nostalgia but to the common feelings of mankind. In his exquisite medley of "I Can Dream, Can't I" and "I'll Be Seeing You," his crisp reading of the lyrics and unadorned emotionalism speak to the universality of the human experience.
When the second act begins, Feinstein admits that he lied a bit when he titled his show "Piano and Voice." There's a drummer, bass player, banjo player and xylophone player on stage. But, he explains, who'd buy a ticket to a show called "Piano and Voice and Xylophone?" The added instrumentality allows him to explore his songs more fully, with a roaring honky-tonk version of "The Old Music Master" and a Tin Pan Alley medley.
It might sound like typical Feinstein, but there are some changes. He's still a precise interpreter of lyrics, whose clarity and specificity illuminate each song. But at one time he was a piano player who sang. Now, he's a singer who also plays the piano. "Piano and Voice" showcases not only Feinstein the musician but Feinstein the stand-up singer as well.
It's an added strength that showed itself on opening night most particularly in a segment of songs in which he was accompanied by songwriter Burton Lane, with whom he has just completed his newest album. As Lane played, he sang "On a Clear Day," a song so identified with Streisand, few other singers even attempt it. Michael Feinstein not only held his own, he made it his own. And that's singing.
This show's an absolute delight, and consolidates Feinstein's position as heir to 50 years of great American music.
Late in the first act of his new show at the John Golden Theater, Michael Feinstein declares that his favorite musical form is the waltz.
''It does something to my heart,'' he explains. ''I'm moved in a way I cannot put into words.'' The 34-year-old singer and pianist goes on to say that a doctor once told him the waltz was the rhythm most resonant with the human heartbeat.
Were any other young concert performer to voice sentiments that might be more appropriate to a schmaltzy 40's movie musical about Johann Strauss, it might seem laughable. But the enthusiasm of this intransigent nostalgist for America's pre-rock songwriting tradition has always carried an aura of almost religious zeal. And when he follows up his introduction with a sweeping, passionately sung medley of three Rodgers and Hart waltzes - ''Wait Till You See Her,'' ''The Most Beautiful Girl in the World'' and ''Lover'' - his romantic fantasy world of old-time show business becomes an irresistible place to visit.
''Michael Feinstein in Concert: Piano and Voice,'' which opened a four-week engagement at the Golden (252 West 45th Street) on Tuesday evening, is an almost totally different show from his Broadway debut two years ago. It is also an enormous improvement. When Mr. Feinstein first made the leap from cabaret to Broadway at the Lyceum Theater, the combintion of awkward dialogue, a distracting second pianist and Mr. Feinstein's general insecurity prevented him from communicating the warmth he had projected in his New York club performances.
After two years of touring the country, however, Mr. Feinstein has developed the vocal resources and self-assurance to be able to infuse a small Broadway house with a cabaret-style intimacy. His singing has grown impressively in range and size. To his baritone register he has added a tenor head voice of compelling sweetness and purity. This vocal expansion has enhanced his skills as a crooner. And in his new show it is displayed to especially fine effect in a soaring medley of ''Make Believe'' and ''I Have Dreamed,'' performed as a tribute to Oscar Hammerstein 2nd.
Mr. Feinstein has also begun to refine a nascent talent for mimickry. During a tribute to Johnny Mercer, he switches from a Southern dialect to a hard-boiled show-business argot in the transition from ''Lazy Bones'' to ''Hooray for Hollywood.'' The change of inflections isn't just gratuitous showing off, for it underscores a point he makes about Mercer's brilliance at writing lyrics in different vernaculars.
The show is divided into two sections. In the first, Mr. Feinstein performs alone, accompanying himself on the piano. Act I closes with a segment of songs by the veteran Broadway songwriter Burton Lane, whose work Mr. Feinstein recently recorded on an engaging new album, ''Michael Feinstein Sings the Burton Lane Songbook,'' with the composer at the piano. At Tuesday's opening night show, Mr. Lane joined Mr. Feinstein onstage for a jolly nostalgic segment that included ''Babes on Broadway,'' ''Anything Can Happen in New York'' and ''How About You,'' among others.
In the second half, Mr. Feinstein is joined by four musicians who play xylophone, bass, drums and guitar. This odd mixture, though less than ideal, still serves him reasonably well, although a comic bit of business in which Mr. Feinstein competes with the xylophonist, Ian Finkel, seems disposable.
For most of the rest of the show, however, Mr. Feinstein has found a confident, entertaining balance between the three sides of his musical personality. One side is a precocious youth showing off for the grown-ups. Another is his impersonation of a debonair male archetype from oldtime Hollywood musicals who flashes glittering smiles while indulging in Liberace-like pianistic flourishes. The third, and most valuable, is an obsessive archivist dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of a cherished tradition.
It is the archivist in Mr. Feinstein - the part of him that cares profoundly that the glories of America's popular-song tradition not fade into neglect - that counteracts his glitzier tendencies. It is this side that gives ''Michael Feinstein in Concert: Piano and Voice,'' the feeling of a generous, almost devotional act of love.