Michael Feinstein is pissed. There’s a table smack in front of him with some obliviously talkative people who could use a crash course in cabaret etiquette. “What’s going on over there?” he asks, then commenting, “It’s a chatty crowd tonight,” when their chatter competes with his patter. But when he slides over to the piano bench to relieve pianist Tedd Firth, who’d accompanied him for a lively opening medley, it’s a strong cue to settle down. Cue not taken. This is unusual. This is Feinstein at Feinstein’s/54 Below. The man is used to hushed reverence. He looks directly at the offenders and then, pointedly, he speaks. Voice and eyes have more ice in them than all of us in the packed house have in our combined drinks: “I’ll wait.” Glaring, daring them, blaming and hopefully shaming, he doesn’t back off: “Really. I will wait.” Michael Feinstein is worth the wait. He may be losing his patience, but we got “Losing My Mind,” an intelligent, internalized, non-histrionic treatment of the number from his favorite Stephen Sondheim score, Follies. But later, there’s some more distraction and, exasperated —but with wit— he waves an arm in front of his body and says, “This is live, you know. It’s not T.V.” We greet this with spontaneous applause. As always, he is the lovely lover of love songs, his affection for the material and its creators anything but casual or offhand. He knows his stuff, and he’s known many of the writers first hand and, in fact, has had THEIR hands on a keyboard on album tracks when he’s dedicated full albums to their oeuvre. Feinstein recorded some fine Styne 🙂 and now he combines Jule Styne’s melody that graced the last lyric of Carolyn Leigh, the devastatingly unblinking “Killing Time” with Jimmy Webb’s very early song “Didn’t We.” Now we could hear a pin drop. And I don’t think somebody thoughtfully stuffed the restaurant’s cloth napkins into the mouths of the offending patrons; I am not near their table, but assume the Feinstein hypnotic magnetism has taken hold.
And, later, he lets the appreciative crowd benefit from his vast repertoire of memorized material, inviting them to shout out requests. Unsurprisingly, fans call out titles he’s recorded and associated with, mostly standards from the golden age. He notices one well-dressed lady politely trying to get his attention. He quips, “You raised your hand; you must be from out of town.” One of the requests is for another Sondheim gem, “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along, and another is for “I Won’t Send Roses,” a Jerry Herman ballad he has long championed. Following this, Michael talks not only ABOUT the songwriter, but talks about having recently talked TO the songwriter personally. (Herman played piano and sang on Feinstein’s all-Herman CD some years back.) The subject turns to the upcoming revival of his smash hit Hello, Dolly! and vocalist and terrific trio (Firth, bassist Sean Smith and drummer Mark McLean) treat the title song to a variety of spins and tempi. Feinstein does a fun impression of Louis Armstrong’s version, Firth goes to town on a wild piano run, and the singer debuts some extra lyrics he says Herman has added for the revival, praising Dolly in new rhyming ways.
Although the potential segue is not grabbed, his glittery special guest co-star of the night, merry, mighty Marilyn Maye logged quite a few performances in the title role in theatres once upon a time and back when Feinstein’s was a club on the East side, at the Loews Regency, she regaled New Yorkers with her own Herman show. But the crowd greets her and then cheers her first number, a mega-medley, with rapturous excitement and appreciation the long-absent Dolly herself gets from the fond singing, dancing waiters in the musical when she returns to her favorite elegant restaurant. The waiters at Feinstein’s/54 Below are smiling, too, and the room becomes what they used to call a love-in in the ‘60s when the original Hello, Dolly! was in its initial run, sharing the Great White Way with Hair and other fare there. Ah, Marilyn: merrily she rolls along, sparkling in bright blue, with a bright smile, brightening the night with her surefire medley of rainbow songs, demonstrating that she has more colors in her voice than there are in the rainbow. And she’s in particularly rich, clear voice this night, despite having taught a several-hours-long master class in cabaret singing to her students and doing an earlier full show with pal Feinstein and greeting admirers afterwards. And if the medley includes the most famous warhorse of them all, “Over the Rainbow,” written for the character of a young Kansas girl in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, well, remember than once upon a time Miss Maye was a young girl living in Kansas, too, although I can’t quite picture her leaning against a haystack in a gingham dress.
But I suppose she wasn’t born wearing bugle beads and red nail polish and shiny rings and a necklace with a figure of Buddha. Then again, I wouldn’t be that surprised. But this lady wizard creates her own lift-us-up-off-the-ground cyclone of excitement and magic worthy of Oz. However, although she’s justly celebrated for her dynamo mojo, she’s no one-trick pony just generating more energy than New York would need should overtaxed air conditioners in the heat wave cause a blackout. She can settle down to croon “Lazy Afternoon,” painting a picture of stillness and sultry mystery as a set-up to wheel out her wheelhouse of acting skills to bid “Bye Bye Country Boy” to an affair with a “hayseed dumb” fellow she hates to leave, thinking hmmmmmm…she might consider staying if he’d consider asking.
In a varied recipe for a show like this, with sugar and spice, the duets are the delicious desserts that as matter of course feel like main courses. Feinstein and Maye, in their usual way with “It’s a Most Unusual Day,” bring a hooray to the distingué of the ambiance. The early evening’s cold stares that measured 54 Below zero are forgotten in the white-hot excitement of their combined fresh frisson. Veteran pros basking in the considerable glow of mutual respect and affection adds to the much-thanked audience’s additional appreciation and joy. When they combine again at evening’s end for “I Love a Piano” and a boogie-woogie segment that even reworks the TV American Bandstand theme lyrically to instead be a hip theme for Feinstein’s/54 Below is a cute cherry on top of a sundae that will continue weekdays through the first of September.
And then they’re off. Feinstein solos in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, as well as stops in California (Pasadena and San Francisco, the latter city for an engagement at the other club bearing his name, Feinstein’s at The Nikko). The Marilyn Maye heyday days continue with a one-night stopover back home sweet home for those venturing for a night out from their little houses on the prairie in Kansas where she’ll headline for the Prairie Jazz Festival ——- — (not at New York prices: $5 for adults, free if you’re 18 or younger—must be nice). The Big Apple gets her back the next week for two shows a night, September 16, 17, and 18 and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. Separately or together, Feinstein and/or Maye are like a subway trip to musical Heaven. You must take the A train to “54” now or in a few weeks for Miss M. at Dizzy’s. An airplane might be in order to see Mr. F. after the first of September, and the closest you’ll come to seeing them together in Manhattan is certainly no cigar, but they’ll be ships that pass a night apart — he is at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall venue on October 18 and she makes her annual NYC Cabaret Convention appearance the next night. And on October 28, he plays the Mayo PAC (not Maye PAC) in Jersey. But both “PACk” a lot of entertainment into their well-worth-seeing appearances. What are you waiting for?
LIVE PERFORMANCE PHOTOS BY MARYANN LOPINTO