Review by ROB LESTER**** Stop! Look! Listen! ..and say, “Wow!” Showstoppers are usually thought of as musical numbers that cause the audience to applaud so wildly long that the show simply can’t go on for a while. Throughout musical theatre history, these songs sometimes become sure-fire applause-getters in or out of context.
The overture preceding Michael Feinstein‘s entrance is, instead of the typical theatre musical montage, one that only includes snippets—often an accompaniment figure or vamp that’s so iconic that it’s almost as famous as the main body of the song. We begin with those brassy, assertive six notes that precede the first lyric in “Hey, Big Spender” and the instantly recognizable vamp leading into Kander & Ebb’s “(Theme from) New York, New York” and the adrenaline-rush pounding that sets up “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Four Sondheim mini-signatures are in the fun mix. Then Michael Feinstein is on stage with “Swanee,” just changing one word; instead of the title word on line, he sings, “Broadway, you’re calling me!” Remembering and taking on a delightful Kander & Ebb number about wanting “to sing a showstopper from a show-stopping show…” that was written ages ago for a TV special starring Liza Minnelli and Mikhail Baryshnikov, we’re off and running — but never run out of ideas, joy, energy or examples of different kinds of showstoppers. This is the hook and theme of the entertaining patter; he tells us about the moments that “stop” a show, including quieter, emotional ones that are also “heart-stoppers.” As an example, he sings “Losing My Mind” from Follies in tribute to Barbara Cook because of her memorably putting her stamp on it in the concert version in the decade after the show first appeared. Unsurprisingly, his comments about the loss of Miss Cook this summer are gracious and come with added personal meaning since they were friendly and performed together. This was one of the ballads for which he spelled the ever-sensational Tedd Firth at the piano and thoughtful crooning and reflection gave respite to the belting and brio.
Mr. Feinstein is in his element and in fine fettle, singing notes both long and strong in this engagement at the Manhattan club that bears his name, Feinstein’s/54 Below. Ingratiating, gentlemanly without being stuffy, tossing out bits of theatre history without being professorial, he is a gracious and gifted guide. While he made his reputation for respecting classic material, singing and playing the way American standards the way their creators wrote them, he can indulge in a change of pace now and again. This time, the unusual situation was taking “Hello, Young Lovers” out of its typically warm and reflective, but bittersweet, typical tempo and mood, it became an upbeat and fleet spree. Its line “All of memories are happy tonight” never sounded more convincing. It was memories enhanced by Red Bull, but no bull in the professing the statement.
The anecdotes, even if you’ve heard them, bring chuckles because they’re told well and with relish. Phil Silvers’s clever ad lib after the set fell down during A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a very funny thing indeed. (I won’t spoil it here.) The tales of the ultimate way to stop a show—dying on-stage— may seem irreverent, but what a way to go, so Feinstein goes for it–with a playful wink. Not one to shy away from memorizing tricky or wordy lyrics, he offers not only chorus after chorus of Cole Porter’s “list song” title number from Can-Can, but also the tongue-twister speed race to end them all, which few would dare at such a gallop: “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians),” the Danny Kaye specialty which is largely a large list of names of Russian composers of classical music. We often hear the old saw that a certain singer would be entertaining to hear if should that vocalist “sing the phone book”; this lyric might be as close as one gets. And the late musical theatre great who wrote it, Ira Gershwin, can be imagined approvingly smiling down, pleased and proud with the deft delivery by this singer who once upon a time was his musical secretary/archivist. And the Kurt Weill melody gets quite an on-the-mark performance in the on-your-mark-get-set-go by the tip-top trio, which also includes drummer Mark McLean and bassist Phil Palombi. Firth, whose contributions and skills are virtually impossible to over-praise, leads them with alternately calm and gleeful professionalism.
The engagement has included some guest star spots. The night I attended, it was John Lloyd Young, whose rich voice and strong presence caused some heavy applause (and heavy panting from die-hard fans as he took on his cooler demeanor). His treatment of “The Impossible Dream” owed more to a laidback Elvis-hasn’t-quite-left-the-building approach than the earnest dedication designed for that guy from La Mancha, different as armored knight and day. The last week of the run will find Betty Buckley as guest—who, if “Memory” serves, has a few Broadway showstoppers in her history, too.
Michael Feinstein, always a privilege and pleasure to find behind a mic and in front of an audience, is debonair and digs into words and lets melodies soar. Here, he is also loose, tossing out a line or two that audiences not entrenched in musical theatre might not get, such as —within an unrelated piece—suddenly a nod to the beginning of a song from Sondheim’s Company, he yells out, “Where ya going?” and the band members gamely shout back, “Barcelona.” Maybe you had to be there. I think you’ll want to be.
See www.54below.com for for info/reservations/calendar.