Michael Feinstein is as warm, relaxed, and personable a musician as you’ll ever find. Last night, he worked every seat in the big house, making sure the folks in the nosebleed balconies in back felt as much a part of the program as the ones in the orchestra seats.
In addition to being a first-class performer, he’s also a consummate professional.
The band was warming up as the audience entered the Music Center at Strathmore. Feinstein strolled onstage at 8:03 p.m.
Some music legends dawdle backstage as much as 45 minutes after the show’s announced start time before sauntering into the limelight.
Feinstein had already finished his introduction and second song when an elegantly dressed couple tried to slip inconspicuously into their center front row seats.
Feinstein knew what the rest of the audience was thinking. He teased the couple. Gently.
“Why are you late?” he asked the couple.
“I came from California and I’m on time!”
The audience roared.
He gave the twosome a 30-second rewind of what he’d done since the show started. The sold-out house cheered and laughed.
The audience was ready for a superb performance and they got it – and not just from Feinstein.
The musical director and pianist Tedd Firth is Feinstein’s onstage sideman. He is full of dramatic energy as he romps through a tune, playing the Steinway piano with one hand and directing the with other. All the while, the left foot is tapping to the beat and the right is stomping the pedals.
He was directing 15 musicians who performed flawlessly, as if they’d been together for years.
When Firth wasn’t seated at the piano, Feinstein was. His skills on the ivories were as smooth as piano dynamo Liberace, whom he jokingly referenced twice during the evening.
Both men played from memory.
The stage setting was classic Strathmore. The ever-changing, dynamic lighting was on cue and helped set the mood for each song.
Kudos to Andy Brattain, the production and sound director.
For some songs, Feinstein’s hair, which was combed into a slight peak, was drenched in fuchsia light, giving him a slightly goth-rocker look. For the first part of the show, he wore a close fitted, satin shawl collared, one button tuxedo suit, white shirt, a bow tie and polished patents leather shoes. No cummerbund. Though he’s 59, and most 59-year old guys don’t have the physique (or abs) to carry off that youthful cut, Feinstein does. After the intermission, he switched to a velvet tuxedo jacket.
About being 59. He looks as young and eager as the City of Annapolis mayor, another Michael, who is all of 31.
The concert was part musical performance and part college lecture, more specifically the course ‘Great American Songbook 101.’
He is as passionate discussing the composers and performers of the great iconic American songs of the 1920s through, roughly, the 1950s, as he is singing them.
He credits Frank Sinatra, who would have been 100 years old on December 12, 2015, for his “six decades of entertaining” and for reviving and revitalizing many of the American songbook standards. It is Feinstein’s mission, too, as a reading of his bio reveals.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Feinstein talked of his first meeting with Ol’ Blue Eyes. He would pepper his dialogue throughout the evening reminiscing about his friendship with Liza Minnelli, Rosemary Clooney, Ira Gershwin, and members of the fabled Rat Pack.
His songs were flavored with the tonal and physical gestures of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Fred Astaire, but, the package was entirely Feinstein.
The golden voice, the fluid delivery was all his. He’s not a copycat – he’s one hep cat.
The crowd ate it up, giving him several standing Os throughout the all-too-short evening.
He had ‘em at the first song: “Luck be a Lady Tonight,” written by Frank Loesser for the musical Guys and Dolls, and immortalized by that Italian boy from Hoboken.
Next, for “Time After Time,” he sat down at the piano, singing … “What good are words I say to you …” as he caressed the keys. Followed by “Pennies From Heaven.”
The band ripped through a rousing “Brazil” instrumental. Then Feinstein stepped up with “Fly Me To The Moon,” a Sinatra standard, written by Oliva Ong.
By then, the cavernous space felt less like an auditorium and more like the intimate Manhattan space of Below 54, or, maybe, the old Copacabana.
The audience laughed along with his joking introduction of “Just One of Those Things,” by Cole Porter. Singing legend Rosemary Clooney, he said, taught him the song, with its ultimate relationship-killer lyrics.
It was just one of those nights
Just one of those fabulous flights
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings
Just one of those things …
The second half was just as riveting. He prowled the stage, seemingly capturing the entire audience with his gaze. The songs were crowd-pleasers, and many hits that Sinatra sang: “Night and Day, and including classics like “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Day In Day Out,” “All The Way” and “My Kind of Town Chicago.” Plus there was the plus the rousing “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread)” by .were written by Johnny Mercer with music by Rube Bloom, which Elvis made into a huge hit.
He finished with a nearly 20-minute medley. Feinstein and the band performed as if they’d just stepped on stage: fresh and strong. It was all the big Frankie favs, ending with – Ron Miller and Orlando Murden’s “For Once in My Life, which Stevie Wonder recorded and changed the tempo to an upbeat one,” and Sinatra’s signature song by Fred Ebb and John Kander … “New York, New York.”
Quick! Which song are you humming now?
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a 20-minute intermission.
Michael Feinstein: Sinatra Centennial with Big Band was a one-night performance on December 11, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future Strathmore events, go to their calendar of events.