The Two of Clubs
Michael Feinstein: The Sinatra Project
Venturing into his most commercial venture so far, yet doing so with the same close attention to musical history that has marked all of his previous work, Michael Feinstein launched The Sinatra Project last night in his namesake club. Though limited to a total of just five nights (the show performs through September 6th), it is also marks the release of The Sinatra Project CD on Concorde Records.
The show has several selling points that justify its high cover charge (the cheapest seats are $95, and they go up from there to $125 and $150 per person plus a $40 food and beverage minimum). The first and most obvious plus is the music itself. Feinstein has chosen a deliciously eclectic mix of songs that are, in one way or another, associated with The Chairman of the Board. The centerpiece is a number (part of a song cycle) created for Sinatra late in his career by Marilyn and Alan Bergman and John Williams. Sinatra reportedly loved it but did not learn it so he never recorded or performed it. Feinstein got it from the Bergmans and performs the first of the song cycle's four movements in the showyou have to buy the CD to hear the rest.
In a novel approach that gives Feinstein a fresh way to present otherwise very familiar music, he has taken a number of Sinatra songs from one era and had them arranged (by Billy Elliot, his musical director) in the manner of Sinatra's classic style from another era (often taking songs from the late 1930s and 1940s and doing them in Sinatra's golden era of the mid-1950s and beyond). A perfect example of this is Feinstein's rendition of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," which Sinatra recorded early in his career but never revisited, and doing it with a lush, driving Nelson Riddle-style arrangement.
"Begin the Beguine" is particularly thrilling because Feinstein's show features a seventeen-piece big band! As he said from the stage, there are more musicians on his stage than are in most Broadway musical pits these days. And they are terrific musicians, too, like premier jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, Mark Vinci and Aaron Heick on reeds, and David Finck on bass, to name just a few. In some sense, the presence of this big band almost overshadows Feinstein because the opportunity to hear this bright and brassy sound is so rare and wonderful.
Among the show's other highlights are performances of songs such as "There's a Small Hotel," "Fools Rush In" and "For Once in My Life." We would rather he performed "All the Way" as a stand alone number rather than coupling it with "All My Tomorrows" because the former is such an iconic Sinatra number and it could only be diminished by making it part of another song. Nonetheless, Feinstein was smart about his song selections, staying away from overworked material like "New York, New York," "Chicago" and "My Way."
Also, though Feinstein can do impressions, he happily makes no effort to try and sound like Sinatra. He honors the man by singing so many of his great songs his own way, while sharing his considerable knowledge of this incredibly influential singer. The show has gained a touch of additional authenticity because Feinstein knew him. If the music is, at times, vocally challenging, Feinstein is up to it and he raises the ante with his smart and insightful patter.
By the way, the band is so immense, and the demand to see this show is so large, that the show itself is not in Feinstein's club, but on the other side of the lobby in the Regency Hotel's ballroom. Nonetheless, this show marks the tenth anniversary season of Feinstein's successful high-end nightclub and readily portends another decade of great music in the offing.
Nobody has the right to sing "Broadway Baby" more than Andrea McArdle. Original star of Annie when she was a tyke, the now mid-forties nightclub, concert and theater star has been part of our entertainment world for a very long time. She does, indeed, sing "Broadway Baby" but it's a parody of the original because McArdle has a love-hate relationship with her iconic fame; having one's life defined by something you did when your age was in single digits has got to be somewhat unsettling. Nonetheless, she tells the story of when Carol Channing once heard a young Andrea complaining about having to sing "Tomorrow," and the grand doyenne of musical theater took the girl aside and actually scolded herreminding her of how lucky she was to have her own signature song. So, in her just concluded run at the Metropolitan Room, you can bet "Tomorrow" was on the bill, although she held out a long time before she finally performed it.
The compelling aspects of McArdle's cabaret act were two-fold, the first being her engaging, off-the-cuff banter. Self-aware, very much a non-diva, she comes across as a striving woman who has enjoyed her success-to-date but clearly hungers for more. Her unvarnished honesty is, in a word, refreshing. She is a scrapper, which makes her very real and entirely likeable.
The second compelling element of McArdle's act is her song selection. She has chosen songsdelivered with briothat in one way or another match the image of herself that she creates with her patter. A New York girl, she sings "N.Y.C." As someone with a reputation for breaking the rules, she sings "Everybody Says Don't." She sings songs made famous by her musical theater influences, Karen Carpenter and Bill Joel, and marvels that she was given the chance, at the age of 36, to play Belle on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast. Wisely, though, she sings the show's famous title number that was actually performed by Mrs. Potts.
Wearing her heart on her sleeve, McArdle sings "Some People" from Gypsy with the outspoken desire to follow Patti LuPone in the starring role. And wouldn't that be kind of beautifully ironic for someone who was, in her way, literally a Baby June, to finally land the role of Mama? We wish her luck.
Informal and charming, Tom Wopat's recent show at the Metropolitan Room kind of snuck up on us. At first it seemed like a modest act tossed together for the late night slot so that Wopat could sing right after the curtain went down at Chicago where he currently stars as Billy Flynn. It may, in fact, have been intended to be no more than that, but it is. Much more.
Working with his exceptional musical director, Tedd Firth, Wopat didn't just sing a variety of material, he made each divergent and unexpected choice seem as if it was designed for he, alone. Whether performing the comically retro song about being cool, "I'm Hip," or the intensely moody "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" (off-mike), he performs each number as if it was an old friend. Some, in fact, are songs he's been performing for a long time, like "Makin' Whoopee," but whether they're old or new in his repertoire, the material seems new again whenever he sings them.
Other highlights that evening included "I Get Along Without You Very Well," "These Old Walls" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." Plus he had a special guest star, Carol Woods from the cast of Chicago, with whom he performed a couple of amusing duets, including "Class" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
We've seen Tom Wopat perform in a variety of clubs, including Feinstein's, Birdland, and, most recently, The Metropolitan Room. Even if you've seen him in Annie Get Your Gun, A Catered Affair and Chicago, not to mention his non-musical Broadway role Glengarry Glenn Ross, the amazing truth is that his work in the theater will not prepare you for what he brings to a nightclub stage. He is, simply put, his own man and a wonderfully winning entertainer.