When it comes to the great American songbook, Michael Feinstein is the keeper of the flame.
As versatile at the piano as he is lending his marvelous voice to the best of Tin Pan Alley, Feinstein got a head start in the world of cabaret while serving as assistant to renowned American lyricist Ira Gershwin.
The Ohio native has since gone on to a career that has him performing in symphony halls and with string orchestras at home and abroad — and recording standards.
On occasion, he turns up with a snappy rhythm section — and perhaps a veteran keyboard man to spell him at the piano. That’s what he did Friday night for his Napa Valley Opera House debut.
Feinstein was but an ingratiating twentysomething when he launched his career in the Bay Area in the 1980s, at the long-shuttered but not forgotten Plush Room on Sutter Street in San Francisco.
There was cabaret magic whenever he showed up, beating the drum for the great songwriting teams who brought musical treasures to life on stage and screen from the early 20th century onward. He was the new kid on the block, following in the footsteps of nightclub stalwarts and crooners like Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson, Bobby Short, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Greco and Jack Jones — well before the likes of Michael Bublé and Peter Cincotti appeared on the scene.
Still full of youthful spirit and armed with a treasure trove of great stories about composers, their music and his part in it all, the 55-year-old entertainer thrilled a nearly full Opera House with 90-plus minutes of material from the ever-growing great American songbook — “although now I guess it’s the Rod Stewart songbook,” he quipped.
There was an abundance of brilliance — a gooseflesh-raising rendition of “Losing My Mind” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” the Oscar-winning Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields ballad, “The Way You Look Tonight,” the lovely waltz arrangement of Bart Howard’s “In Other Words,” plus an enchanting ballad from the great songwriting team of Michel Legrand, and Marilyn and Alan Bergman, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”
In a nod to Napa Valley on Broadway, Feinstein and a trio led by pianist Sam Kriger breezed through Frank Loesser’s “Standing on the Corner” from “The Most Happy Fella” and gave us an Ol’ Blues Eyes medley, “Luck Be A Lady” with “All I Need Is A Girl,” the latter a great musical swagger from the score of “Gypsy.”
Feinstein’s signature song, “I Love A Piano,” shows off the artist’s love affair with the music of Irving Berlin, as does the salute to George Gershwin, “S’Wonderful” and “Of Thee I Sing,” which nobody does better.
Sharing the stage were two young singers who impressed the judges at the Feinstein-sponsored Great American Songbook High School Vocal Academy and Competition last month. Competition winner was lanky upstate New York resident Nick Ziobro, who’d just celebrated his 16th birthday. Ziobro earned a standing ovation with a stunning rendition of the jazz standard, “All of Me,” complete with some righteous scatting. Second runner-up Tori Anna, from Napa, displayed her gorgeous voice with a lovely arrangement of the Nat “King” Cole classic, “Smile.”
Feinstein opened up the program for audience requests, putting his special touch to a quartet of George and Ira Gershwin classics — “A Foggy Day,” “They All Laughed,” “Embraceable You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
In addition to amusing stories, a Peter Lorre imitation and some self-deprecating remarks, the great American songman regaled the crowd with the Stevie Wonder ’60s hit, “For Once in My Life” and closed with a treasure from his newest CD, “The Sinatra Project, Vol. II,” a jazzy “New York, New York.”
This guy is a terrific showman. Save for the quiet moments when he’s caught up in a dreamy ballad, Feinstein runs full bore. There’s never a dull moment. I suspect most of the audience would still be there if Feinstein had the stamina to keep singing.