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Michael Feinstein at Feinstein's/54 Below

The cabaret legend makes his debut performance under the banner of the newly rechristened nightclub.

Michael Feinstein performs at the newly renamed Feinstein's/54 Below.
(© David Gordon)

Since opening its doors in the summer of 2012, something has always felt missing from 54 Below. Sure, the food was excellent, the drinks superb, and (many of) the performers were top notch; but for some reason, it didn't add to up what should have been the best cabaret venue in the city. Now we know that the secret ingredient was Michael Feinstein, who is making his sensational debut performance at club, recently renamed Feinstein's/54 Below as part of a new partnership. The rather unfortunate forward slash notwithstanding, this appears to be a happy marriage: Feinstein brings an air of sophistication and discernment that was hitherto lacking at the Broadway supper club. Nobody knows how to put together a show quite like he does.

He welcomes us to the show with a heartfelt rendition of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's "The Christmas Waltz," making us feel instantly at ease. This also does the job of acknowledging the season without drowning us in a sea of holiday schmaltz (it's one of just two Christmas songs in the set list). It's a smart move: We'll get enough of that in the coming week and considering Feinstein's range and depth of knowledge about the Great American Songbook, it would be a waste of his talent.

Feinstein instead focuses his set list on Broadway, an appropriate choice for 54 Below (which has become a favorite destination for musical-theater stars looking to break into cabaret). He gives a swinging interpretation of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' "A Lot of Livin' to Do" from Bye Bye Birdie. He performs the originally censored lyrics of Dietz and Schwartz's "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" (most notably featured in The Band Wagon, but originally from the team's 1929 revue, The Little Show). In his hands it feels simultaneously naughty and urbane. He also does a dreamy rendition of one of Jerry Herman's songs from the 1964 musical Ben Franklin in Paris. "If you know this song, your childhood was probably as lonely as mine was," he observes.

Feinstein has a talent to alloying ultra-obscure material with old standards for an evening that feels enriching without being pedantic. We are learning about the classical music of our country and having a great time doing it. As he trots out witty and unpublished lyrics from America's great songwriters, one understands what it must have been like to gather around the piano at a party with Cole Porter or Noël Coward.

During a medley of songs about Broadway (including "Lullaby of Broadway" and "On Broadway"), Feinstein has us in stitches with Dale Gonyea's parody lyrics to Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York," which ends with the singer hearing the song played over the muzak in the men's room at Saks: "If they can play it there, they'll play it anywhere." Later, while seated at the piano, he regales us with two hilarious pieces by David Colin Ross: "Diff'rent" and "You Know How I Feel about You." He breezily rattles off the clever lyrics, allowing their genius to speak for themselves. It feels almost criminal that these songs are not better known, but we can be thankful to have a guy like Feinstein bringing them to our attention. "You're never going to hear Lady Gaga sing that one," he remarks after the latter number.

In addition to highlighting lesser known material, Feinstein and musical director Tedd Firth reimagine old favorites with their endlessly inventive arrangements. A jazzy version of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (the big hit of 1911, long before jazz had swept the nation) proves the song's versatility as well as Feinstein's creativity at the keys. When Firth is playing, he decorates the interludes with his elegant accompaniment, supported by the steady beat of percussionist Mark McClean and the dexterous pizzicato of bassist Sean Smith.

Joining these seasoned musicians is 19-year-old Indiana University student Lucas Debard, who makes a memorable guest appearance to deliver a very funny spin on "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" (featuring the lyrics "I'm gonna sit right down and tweet myself a Twitter"). Debard possesses a warm and resonant voice as well as irrepressible charm. We hope to see much more of him in the future.

We're certain to see a lot more of Michael Feinstein at Feinstein's/54 Below, however, and if this auspicious maiden voyage is any indication, that is a wonderful thing.