On stage, Michael Feinstein can be two different people. There’s the original Michael Feinstein, the one who sits at the piano delivering ballads so tenderly he reduces the room to a hush. Then there’s the more recently developed Michael Feinstein who fronts a little band that has the power of a big band. That’s thanks in large part to Tedd Firth, who, with Feinstein, concocts the juicy arrangements.
There are signs at Feinstein’s/54Below—where the man with his name on the door is at home through August 26—that the two Feinsteins are blending into one in a turn he calls ”Showstoppers.” With his familiar lambent approach he will sing Bread’s “If” or, in a tribute to the just-deceased Barbara Cook, a medley of “Till There Was You” and “Good Night, My Someone” but later blast Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” as if he’s performing in a stadium holding thousands.
It’s not the first time Feinstein has taken on Lewis, but what may be new(er) is his turning away from the up-tempo material he regularly does when loose-limbed in front. Now he’ll render a heart-wrenching version of the Marilyn Bergman-Alan Bergman-Billy Goldenberg “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom, where the power cry is sung by a woman having an affair with a married man. When Feinstein declares it as slightly altered by the Bergmans, the number reflects a staunch declaration of liberated contemporary mores.
One of the reasons he includes “Fifty Percent” is that it fits his theme: “Showstoppers.” By that, he means songs that have stopped shows—and the performers, like Ballroom’s Dorothy Loudon, who sang them. He also recounts a handful of other reasons why shows have been stopped: like Parkyakarkus (Harry Einstein), who literally died on stage.
Occasionally, Feinstein stretches his idea of a showstopper. He sings the lilting “Real Live Girl” that Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman wrote for Little Me, but it didn’t stop the show the way Sid Caesar did when, as Val du Val in one of the several roles he played, he intoned “Boom-Boom.” Who cares? Cole Porter’s “Can-Can” title song with its never-ending lyric did bring that tuner to a temporary halt. And he certainly got it right reprising Danny Kaye’s “Tschaikowsky” (Ira Gershwin-Kurt Weill) from “Lady in the Dark.” He breezes through it first in medium-fast mode and then at lightning speed.
Though Feinstein isn’t regularly congratulated for his deft impersonations—perhaps because he usually throws them in hurriedly—he should be. He did a two-second-long Ronald Reagan that sounded just like the former actor/president, but when he sang Al Jolson’s “It All Depends on You,” he included no Jolson imitation. He undoubtedly has one he could display, although perhaps he doesn’t get down on one knee..
The kind of at-ease showman that Feinstein is, he gladly shares the spotlight with a guest or sometimes cedes it altogether. During this three-week stay, he’s joined on different nights by Betty Buckley, John Lloyd Young, Julia Goodwin, Erich Bergen and Nick Ziobro.
The night I was there 21-year-old Ziobro, who won a new-talent contest Feinstein runs through his Great American Songbook Foundation, was on tap. Six years ago, Ziobro was the first of the award’s winners. Impressive then, he’s matured now—possibly too much. Tall and good-looking in suit and tie, he sang “On the Street Where You Live” with full-out ‘60s swinger swagger. Throughout the slick presentation, it looked as if it never crossed Ziobro’s mind that he was uttering the words of a man profoundly smitten with a young woman somewhere nearby. He gave the impression the Alan Jay Lerner lyric (Fritz Loewe melody) was merely a streamlined vehicle for him to strut his considerable vocal, shoulder-cocking stuff.
Ziobro has certainly modeled himself on Feinstein, but he needs to watch and listen to his mentor more closely. Just as the fans are eager to do. Talk about showstoppers. Feinstein himself ranks high in that vaunted show-biz category.