He's a 31-year-old to whom rock 'n' roll means something about a ship in a storm. A child of the '60s, he'd rather play the melodies of Irving, George and Ira, Harold and Cole (that's Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen and Porter) than the songs of John, Paul, George and Ringo. And he can't stand the Stones.
He's Michael Feinstein, a young man from Columbus, Ohio, by way of the Los Angeles suburbs, who is a fanatic about American pop music as done from the 1930s through the '50s.Recently in Boston, he tried out his new cabaret-style Broadway show. As they used to say along the Great White Way, it was a smash.
He opened at the Lyceum Theater in New York April 19. And if his sold-out two-night stay in Boston is any indication, Feinstein is on his way to becoming a household name at least in those households where the magic of Sondheim, Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein is held dear.
The lyrics to Feinstein's opening number, "Wanna Sing a Show Tune," go like this: "You can keep those rock songs/I don't need those schlock songs/Only summer stock songs/ Start me tapping my toe."
Soon he segues into "Isn't It Romantic" and from there is off on a journey backward in time and melody. It's a trip that no one makes better than Feinstein.
Sometimes superbly accompanying himself on the piano, other times backed by a super band, he races through more than two hours of great standards, long-lost songs, novelties and even a very 1980s bittersweet new song about breaking up, "Where Do You Start?" by Johnny Mandel and Marilyn and Alan Bergman.
It is Feinstein's sincere love for his material that makes him a hit that and great taste.
He clearly adores his songs, but he never lets that adoration obscure his ability to take them apart and put them back together in his own way. This lends his singing an intensely contemporary response and avoids a dated feeling, even though the songs are often older than he is.
Feinstein's show begins with just the slight, dark-haired, handsome singer and his grand piano before a black curtain. The third or fourth song is Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which Feinstein starts out singing slowly and melodically.
When he arrives at the part about a bugle call making you "want to go to war" he verbally winks at his audience. "It's a very old song," he says.
About a third of the way through "Alexander's Ragtime Band," the hidden orchestra begins to play and then the curtains swing open to reveal the band, prompting Feinstein to take off swinging the song the way it's rarely been swung before.
The audience whoops as he goes to town. The band, led by Elliot Finkel, is consistently complex and exciting. The work on "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is the kind of novel yet loving approach to old material that ought to make Feinstein a major and different kind of star.
Feinstein made his first major mark at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in 1986 when he sold out the hotel's late-night room for 16 weeks. Since then, he developed a strong if narrow following.
Now Broadway gets its turn. It ought to be a swell lullaby.
-William Gale is a staff writer for the Providence Journal.
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