Michael Feinstein and Christine Ebersole Stoke Summertime Wanderlust in Two for the Road
The two cabaret luminaries sit down for a monthlong engagement at Feinstein's/54 Below.
In the cabaret world, few can match the prowess of Christine Ebersole and Michael Feinstein. She's a two-time Tony Award winner who regularly performs concerts around the country. He's the foremost authority on the Great American Songbook and the name behind Feinstein's/54 Below, which is now hosting Ebersole and Feinstein's duo show, Two for the Road.
The travel-themed program begins, appropriately, with the Matt Dennis and Tom Adair song "Let's Get Away From It All," which Feinstein and Ebersole deliver with competence and style. It was so convincing, in fact, that it left me thinking, It's August...what am I still doing in New York? Unfortunately, the rest of this agreeable yet unsatisfying program didn't offer a compelling answer.
Indisputably, Feinstein and Ebersole bring a high level of musical sophistication to the stage: A jazzy duet medley of "Where or When" (by Rodgers and Hart) and "I've Got You Under My Skin" (by Cole Porter) gets another layer when, halfway through, Feinstein incorporates strains from "I Get a Kick Out of You" (also Porter). The whole concoction blends together seamlessly before passing away like a cloud in the summer sky. Their duet rendition of Porter's "Why Don't We Try Staying Home?" is less solid (Feinstein flubbed the lyrics the night I attended).
It is disappointing that the standout numbers from this double act are delivered solo. Ebersole soars on Noël Coward's "Matelot," drawing out the song's Celtic inflections. She also brings a smile to our faces with her Eartha Kitt impersonation on June Carroll and Arthur Siegel's "Monotonous," a howler sure to delight '50s enthusiasts (and the very old) with its cutting references to Gayelord Hauser and Montgomery Clift.
As always, Feinstein is at his best when unearthing some lost treasure from the past, and he does it here with "Yankee Doodle Blues," a George Gershwin, Bud De Sylva, and Irving Caesar collaboration that puts Irving Berlin to shame with its unapologetic flag-waving and pointed barbs at the old world: "Old Cologne don't smell as sweet and pretty as it sounds," Feinstein sings with relish. The lyrics are not only spicy, but Gershwin cleverly undergirds them with a descending ostinato that has a distinctly modernist flavor, an ingenious way to musically cast America as a trumpet of progress.
We're able to notice such details thanks to the rich accompaniment of percussionist Mark McLean, bassist Phil Palombi, and pianist Ted Firth. Feinstein intermittently takes over at the ivories, including for a playful rendition of "Rhode Island Is Famous for You," which he sings as Ebersole looks on. She joins him for brief and unspectacular duets of Coward's "Sail Away" and the Henry Mancini tune "Two for the Road," performed as an obligatory encore.
It may be that this summer road trip suffers from a lack of notable landmarks: There's no showstopping rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine" or "Stormy Weather" (two songs that might have killed following a gloomy week in the city). The closest we get is a modest rendition of the Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger song "Thanks for the Memory," which feels ironic considering how thoroughly unmemorable this evening is.
For all their virtuosity, Ebersole and Feinstein offer very little in the way of warmth; that makes it hard to connect with them. They drive straight through the set list with only limited, seemingly disingenuous banter. "Christine is my soulmate," Feinstein remarks (don't tell Liza). But for two such allegedly close friends, their interaction feels stilted. They share no laugh-out-loud stories or witty insights about the songs they sing. After 70 minutes, the show is over. It's pretty thin broth, even as far as light summer fare is concerned.