Michael Feinstein: A Holiday to Remember
The master of the house returns to Feinstein's/54 Below with a Judy Garland tribute concert.
Two giant Andy Warhol paintings of Judy Garland watch over the Feinstein's/54 Below dining room like merry little Christmas angels during Michael Feinstein's annual December show, A Holiday to Remember. This holiday, Feinstein remembers Garland with a stellar concert of the songs she made famous. He also treats us to a few moments of serendipity: The paintings are on loan from Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, who used to hang out with the artist in that very room back in the heady days of Studio 54.
Wearing a sleek black velvet dinner jacket, the perpetually youthful Feinstein gracefully leaps onto the stage like a well-groomed cat taking his favorite spot on the sofa. This is Feinstein's territory, and for the next 80 minutes he makes us feel perfectly at home.
This is true from the very first song, Dietz and Schwartz's "That's Entertainment." Feinstein eases into the number, while TV screens flanking the stage present a well-curated video illustrating the lyrics: "A clown with his pants falling down" (Garland as a clown in The Pirate), "Or the dance that's a dream of romance" (Garland dancing on an MGM soundstage), "Or the scene where the villain is mean" (Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz). We can only reflect on Garland's remarkable career and think, "That's entertainment."
Like Garland, Feinstein knows how to color a lyric through diction and phrasing: As if he were eating an apple, he bites into the word "Just" in the song "Just in Time" (from Bells Are Ringing), savoring the rhyme of "tossed" and "crossed." For "After the Holidays," John Meyer's tragic song of a faltering relationship, he sings the lyric "Try to pretend till New Years" through the gritted teeth of someone who doesn't want the guests in the other room to hear a clandestine argument.
Thankfully, the program isn't all Christmastime sadness: Feinstein delivers the delightfully naughty Meyer number "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning" with an unapologetic shrug. Gliding his brushes across the snare, drummer Mark McLean wraps this jazzy rendition in an enticing overcoat of percussion. Later, bassist Phil Palombi provides a sturdy rhythmic backbone for "Saint Louis Blues," a number that Feinstein delivers with cool sophistication.
McLean pushes the tempo for a caffeinated medley that seems to cover much of the Judy at Carnegie Hall album: "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "You Made Me Love You," and "The Trolley Song" are all there. Feinstein does a full rendition of George Gershwin and Irving Caesar's "Swanee" after admitting that the song (most often associated with Al Jolson in blackface) is not exactly politically correct anymore. That may be true, but it's still toe-tapping fun.
As with last year's show, Feinstein invites a young artist from the Great American Songbook Academy to sing a number: This year it is Brighton Thomas, whose voice is so radiant and powerful that it almost makes us ignore her questionable selection of Democratic Party anthem "Happy Days Are Here Again." Are they? As Thomas wears a slightly blank expression, we aren't sure she believes it herself. We suppose that having already seized control of her instrument, Thomas has a lifetime of mastering the art of cabaret ahead of her.
Occasionally, Feinstein seems to have mastered the tricks of the trade too well. In nearly every number he holds out the final note until it is inevitably drowned by audience applause. Even when he incorporates Evita arms, this overly grand finale becomes predictable.
That staleness aside, Feinstein's show is mostly fresh: He plays an unreleased home recording of Garland singing "I'll Be Seeing You" that will melt your heart, joining Judy on the last line. His interpretation of Ron Miller and Orlando Murden's "For Once in My Life" starts nice and easy before accelerating into giddy joy. His surging version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" is practically operatic.
Naturally, Feinstein takes the piano in the closing moments for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." A walking encyclopedia of American songwriting, he shares that composer Hugh Martin originally wrote, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last," before Garland objected to how depressing that was. Martin brightened the lyric to "Let your heart be light," but darkness remained in Garland's interpretation. The contrast between the cheerful lyric and the vocal coloring turned out to be a more powerful choice. Judy Garland knew how to do things like that and so does Michael Feinstein.