Michael Feinstein is the gate keeper to the Great American Songbook and he guards and protects the musical treasure chest assiduously. Furthermore, Feinstein himself has become a performing jewel in his own right and his evolution has been fascinating. When I first saw him more than a decade ago, he was a piano man in the mould of the late legend Bobby Short. However, as his popularity and audiences have grown, he has become a confident front man singing with big bands and extending his repertoire.
Michael Feinstein. Photograph © James Penlides
The Sinatra project has been a catalyst in the emergence of the new Feinstein. Sinatra was a showman, savvy enough to surround himself with the finest musicians and arrangers (Nelson Riddle, in particular) and to cherry pick the best songs and shape them to fit his personality. He was bigger than life and he could claim songs and make them his own in a way that no other artist has done before or since. In his odyssey through Ol’ Blue Eyes’ material, Feinstein has found new horizons for himself. The Sinatra project has morphed into the Feinstein project and it’s complete.
Backed by “The Band” (a composite of American musicians that accompanied the star and locals) under the baton of musical director Dean Schneider, Feinstein hit the stage all guns blazing with a medley of Luck Be A Lady Tonight and All I Need is the Girl before reminding us of his piano genius accompanying himself with lush crescendos building the drama on Time After Time.
While Feinstein tends to honour the original arrangements, he will experiment. The bossa nova arrangement on The Way You Look Tonight, WC Handy’s St Louis Blues penned in 1910 featuring Matt Tesler on saxophone, and Fly Me to the Moon effectively unplugged with Tim Bowen on bass and Nick Pennington on guitar, were all adventures that I hadn’t seen Feinstein attempt previously.
Sinatra recorded 88 of Sammy Cahn’s songs, but none better than All the Way, which was my favourite of the evening, but it was the “and friends” moment where Feinstein gave his Satchmo imitation on Hello, Dolly! and then summoned all his presence and vocal power to give a command performance of Anthony Newley’s What Kind of Fool Am I? that had the house roaring for more.
After an uber medley of chestnuts (Come Fly With Me, Witchcraft, A Foggy Day, I’ve Got the World on a String, The Summer Wing, All or Nothing at All, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, Angel Eyes, That’s Life, Night and Day, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, You Make Me Feel So Young), Feinstein finished, as has become his custom for Australian audiences, with a Peter Allen song, this time I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love. However, given that the entire theatre rose to its feet, encores were inevitable, firstly, the biggie, New York, New York, where Feinstein signified his own rise to the “top of the heap” by standing on the piano, before returning to the piano, to perform Gershwin’s Our Love is Here to Stay.
At 60, Feinstein is still a work in progress and that’s a tribute to his integrity in wanting to get the best out of himself and to give his all to his audiences.