by Jim Gladstone
A few times a year, singer-pianist-musicologist-raconteur Michael Feinstein books himself into his eponymous cabaret room at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. Given that Feinstein far more frequently plays concert venues with capacities of over 1000, these intimate gigs are highly anticipated. It’s hard to find a buzzier midweek cultural event in the City by the Bay.
Just four months ago, Feinstein played a remarkable five-night stint paying tribute to the 81- and 92-year-old lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, whose evergreen contributions to the canon of American popular music include “The Way We Were,” “Windmills of My Mind,” and the Tootsie theme, “It Might Be You.”
It was shortly after that impressive run that a return engagement was quickly announced: This past week’s series of “Tribute to Judy Garland” shows. His followers know well that Feinstein considers Garland “the world’s greatest female entertainer” and these performances became a hotter ticket still with the announcement of a special guest performer, Garland’s second daughter, singer-actress Lorna Luft.
At Wednesday’s opening night, the 140-seat room was packed and humming with the anticipation of an audience studded with San Francisco socialites and acolytes of the Great American Songbook, including world-renowned jazz singer Paula West.
Accompanied by an ace quartet as sensitive to the nuances of Feinstein’s vocals as Feinstein is to those of the lyrics, he swept his fans up in a transporting 30-minute opening set that began with “That’s Entertainment” and culminated in a languorous tour-de-force solo turn of The Wizard of Oz standard “If I Only Had A…”
Often performed with only the “brain” verses sung by Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow in the film, Feinstein—accompanying himself on the piano—elegantly elided them with the Tin Man’s “heart” and Cowardly Lion’s “nerve” verses, precisely enunciating to give Yip Harburg’s deliciously witty wordplay as much a showcase as Harold Arlen’s irresistible earworm melody.
This was Feinstein at his finest: reviving and interpreting great music in a manner that not only entertains, but helps audiences focus not only on himself as a performer but on the craft of the songwriters.
What Feinstein wisely doesn’t do is try to imitate the vocal character of great singers of the past. He has a reliably smooth, youthful baritenor and is able to add a bit of brassiness when his interpretations demand, but his greatest strengths are as a humble channeler and showcaser of songs, not as an iconic vocal presence. Save for a few couplets in the role of Dorothy onscreen, Judy Garland isn’t known for singing “If I Only Had A Brain.”
There’s a part of this reviewer that wishes Michael Feinstein wasn’t know for having so much of a heart. His fond appreciation of Garland, her family, and the network of composers she worked with may provide an explanation for turning over the center of his show to Lorna Luft, who took the stage to thunderous applause and grins of excitement. Here she was! Singing scion to the world’s greatest female entertainer. Alas, Luft is not in Feinstein’s league as an interpreter, nor in her mother’s as a vocal presence.
Gregariously belting “San Francisco” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart!” Luft’s pitch was distressingly flat, her delivery expressing enthusiasm at performing for an excited crowd more than a deep engagement with the music at hand. She held notes with bravado unmerited by her vibrato.
Presenting Luft as the centerpiece of Feinstein’s show—even when ostensibly dedicated to her mother—was either intended as an act of generosity or a bit of nostalgic stunt casting. In either case, it did no favors for Luft or the audience.
Feinstein returned to the stage for a few more well-rendered numbers, then brought Luft back up for a dangerously risky rendition of medleys once performed by her mother and Barbra Streisand, including their classic “Happy Days Are Here Again”/”Get Happy” duet from Garland’s 1963-64 television show. With the audience holding its breath, the pair managed to generate a modest success thanks to patter and restraint. That said, it remained clear that there was only one star on the stage.
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.