Cabaret; MICHAEL FEINSTEIN Comedy Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
At the start of his latest album, Such Sweet Sorrow, Michael Feinstein wings in on the middle eight of "Let's Face the Music and Dance", sounding for all the world like this time it's got to be Hollywood or bust. Drama, romance, glamour, satiny strings, shapely horns and saxes - too, too fabulous. But that's not his style. Life is a cabaret, old chum - as if we could ever forget. We like him just the way he is, sweet and low down, coaxing, crooning, swinging, indulging his and our passion for those national treasures of the American popular songbook. And if these weren't for the most part theatre songs, we'd all feel more at home in some fancy lounge bar or supper club, just him and us and no proscenium to come between us. We would, wouldn't we?

Perhaps. But over at the Comedy Theatre - for 21 performances only, mind - he's not about to make a big deal of his "West End" debut. Out he steps, no fuss, no fanfare, no set, "no helicopters or chandeliers" - just a touch of pancake and a follow-spot. And a piano. "I Love a Piano", that's his final number, wouldn't you know: "I know a fine way to treat a... Baldwin?" He has some smart lines, does Feinstein. And some smart new lyrics to old favourites, too. When you revere the originals as much as he does (and doesn't it make a nice change to hear the lyricists given their full due), you can afford some license. And you can take your audience into the backrooms of Tin Pan Alley and share a few trade secrets, too. Like the "dummy lyrics" that greats like Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein fooled around with just to get the feel and rhythm of a song: "Cute little babies that fall out of swings... these are a few of my favourite things." Nice one, Oscar.

The Feinstein voice is pure showbiz. Of the old school. It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it - and they don't do it like this anymore. It isn't a great voice, but my oh my, it's persuasive - a very particular kind of caress. It's the snide, the tantalising chuckle in the sound, the intimate, breathy way in which he'll work closer to the microphone to find the lower registers of a song like "Body and Soul". But then he'll turn on that brassy, vaudeville wha-wha: come on and hear "Alexander's Ragtime Band", and that piano of his is the band, a high-stepping, baton- twirling parade of a band. It's easy to forget how comprehensive his piano arrangements are (if it's a Gershwin tune, you'll be spotting all kinds of little sideways glances at other Gershwin tunes), and indeed what a specialised art self-accompaniment is. He even provides his own Busby Berkeley tap routine for "Lullaby of Broadway", the climax of a heartfelt tribute to Harry Warren, that most unsung of Broadway heroes (42nd Street and a galaxy of other standards). Unsung until now, that is.

Just occasionally, the Feinstein smile will linger a little longer than it should and you'll begin to wonder just how many more luxury items you can take. But then he'll light upon a really great song, and you'll get beyond the charm to know just how he feels about it. "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" or "I Won't Send Roses" from Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's Mack and Mabel; or something brand new, like the title song of that new album, "Such Sweet Sorrow" - a tiny treasure from Marshall Barer and the still underrated Michel Legrand. But if you were still looking for a glimpse of the real Michael Feinstein - all of him - then you'll have found it in his encore: Noel Coward's "If Love Were All". Home truths just don't come any more poignant.

n Last performance 16 Nov. Box-office: 0171-369 1731