Cabaret: Eager to please

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The Independent Culture
I CAN see Michael Feinstein aged about nine. To the delight of his mother (at least) he must have been a piano prodigy, doing songs from the shows at weddings and barmitzvahs. At my barmitzvah I wore a velvet jacket (it was the Seventies,) so imagine my surprise when Feinstein walked on to the vast Barbican stage wearing the very same item.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but he was sporting something suspiciously similar, topped off with a smile as permanent as the creases in his lounge-suit trousers. But then that's what Feinstein is: an upmarket lounge act. Sorry, I got that wrong. Michael Feinstein is an acclaimed contemporary pop vocal stylist. At least, that's what the programme says, on the same page as an advertisement for the Michael Feinstein Appreciation Society. He has made a formidable career as a matchless archivist/performer of The Great American Songbook. After six years as Ira Gershwin's amanuensis, he began performing trunkloads of material, and his incredibly extensive repertoire includes all the Tin Pan Alley greats.

He has a treasure trove of little-known gems at his fingertips. Fancy hearing Johnny Mercer's complete lyrics to "Too Marvellous for Words"? Feinstein's your man. Fancy a swift spin through the witty, uptempo "Rhode Island is Famous For You", a smart, States-wide list-song including the line "Pencils come from Pennsylvania/ Vests from Vest Virginia..."? He'll do it. The problem is just how he does it.

On this occasion, he and his grand piano were surrounded by a six-piece band playing fit to bust. Unfortunately, the sound mix was so bass-bound that his piano-playing could often barely be heard. He does his own arrangements, cunningly slipping no less than15 Gershwin melodies into the accom- paniment to "Embraceable You". All very clever, but beneath the skill and the sentimentality there's remarkably little happening. His high baritone voice is unyielding and curiously inexpressive.

There are cocktail pianists the world over, however, who would chop off their limbs for his keyboard skills. At two points he asks for requests, producing on-the-spot medleys with lush accompaniments full of Gershwin- style chromatic harmonic progressions and gambolling arpeggios. It's the strongest part of the act, the tension dropping away as he thinks his way through unrehearsed music. Elsewhere, you wish he'd calm down. When someone asked for "C'est Si Bon" - made famous by Eartha Kitt - he launched into a purring impersonation. Whatever he's on, he should lower the dosage. At some level, he's still a kid - all too eager to please.