On the evening of October 27, 2012, an almost full-capacity house at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, CA definitely had two reasons to celebrate: first, that five-time Grammy-nominated singer/composer Michael Feinstein is back in concert in Orange County; and, second, that he's brought with him an awesome, 17-piece big band to perform an enjoyable musical tribute to Frank Sinatra, which highlighted both Ol' Blue Eyes' biggest hits and little-heard rarities. The one-night-only concert—part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret series—didn't disappoint, bringing the O.C. an entertaining mixture of rousing jazz-swing numbers, heartfelt ballads, and amusingly-delivered historical facts about the legendary icon, with Feinstein serving as both charming lecturer and talented headliner all in the same breath.
One of the world's leading experts of and biggest cheerleaders for the Great American Songbook—both in performance and in scholarly preservation—Feinstein presented The Sinatra Project much like his other Songbook-inspired concerts which have spotlighted the rich musical history of a bygone era: a bit of thoroughly-researched facts here, a bit of saucy asides there, and lots of gorgeously-arranged old school tunes from some of the history's best composers smushed in between them all. (In one of his many witty barbs throughout the night, Feinstein joked that, really, the Great American Songbook should now be renamed "The Great Rod Stewart Songbook." Ha!)
The concert itself—like the albums and TV Special they sprung from—was nothing less than beguiling. The almost two-hour show, as expected, covered music made famous by Sinatra such as "Luck Be A Lady," "I"ve Got A Crush On You," "Fly Me To The Moon," and "For Once In My Life." (He saves the big one, "New York, New York," as a full-tilt, belted encore, standing atop the grand piano plopped center stage).
Along with a few songs not necessarily tied to Sinatra automatically, many of the compositions Feinstein performed during the concert share another obvious trait: Much like himself, Sinatra had an affinity for the rich repertoire of the great songwriters that were the architects of the Great American Songbook... from the likes of Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwin Brothers, and, later to a certain extent, the Bergmans. (Speaking of the Gershwins, Feinstein also recently released a history-filled coffee table book and matching 12-song CD about his association with the brothers, The Gershwins and Me)
Thankfully, rather than ape the de-facto leader of the Rat Pack's Signature Sound and unique turn-of-phrase, Feinstein allowed for his own interpretations of his songs to shine through, though never letting the performances even once waver from being a respectful homage. The icing on this already delicious musical confection were, of course, the fascinating anecdotes and personal stories that Feinstein shared regarding each song... almost like a musical Indiana Jones—archeologically informative, yet truly entertaining. One of the more memorable stories he shared involved his very first gig actually playing and singing for Sinatra himself, which, as one would can only imagine, was certainly an intimidating task (especially with Sinatra's A-List celebrity friends in attendance).
As a pure singer, Feinstein—whether away from or behind the piano—was simply fantastic, belting and crooning Sinatra's songs with equal ease. He was also quite a great showman, often casually conversing with the audience directly, and making sure to treat us to long-sustained high notes to punctuate the end of a big number. While his encyclopedic knowledge of music is certainly jaw-dropping, his witty remarks added to complete audience endearment. At one point, upon mentioning his roots in Columbus, Ohio, someone in the audience yelled out "Yeah, Buckeyes!" to which Feinstein, without skipping a beat retorted, "Sir, do I look like I care about sports?" The evening even included a brief Justin Bieber-inspired re-imagining of the song "Fever."
But as great a singer and musical lecturer Feinstein is, he was also matched note-for-glorious-note by the orchestra he brought along, the Usual Suspects band, led by musical director and sometime piano accompanist Bill Elliott. Man, that horn section alone was worth the price of a ticket to this show! The show really kicked it up a notch whenever the entire band goes full-on big-band bonkers, as they do on the "Sing! Sing! Sing! / Let Yourself Go" mashup and the all-instrumental Brazilian section. (Suffice it to say, the "New York, New York" finalé would inspire even the most reserved of theatergoers to start a kickline)
The uptempo numbers were, naturally, wonderful and thoroughly engaging, but the quieter moments—most of which pair Feinstein's voice with just the piano—proved to be the show's most powerful, soul-stirring sections. His solo on "Time After Time" was achingly beautiful, as was his renditions of "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" (a favorite of Sinatra's fellow Rat Pack-er Sammy Davis Jr.) and "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?"
But, of the night's uniformly superb song selections, many in the audience will no doubt remember Feinstein's gorgeous, slowed-down version of "Fly Me To The Moon" most of all. Feinstein disclosed that though he enjoyed what Sinatra did with the song's fun, jazz-swing arrangement—which to this day is famously associated with the Sinatra himself—Feinstein preferred the original emotional, tonal context that Bart Howard, the song's composer, intended with the song in the beginning. Reviving that feeling in his own, quite haunting rendition, Feinstein managed to even elicit a few tears from this audience as well.
Overall, The Sinatra Project was a truly magnificent evening that expertly combined nostalgia with phenomenal musicality, with bits of a history lesson thrown in for good measure. The richness of this multi-faceted cabaret show felt very much like the most entertaining lecture series ever produced—proctored by a terrific 17-piece big band and a really great-sounding professor. After sitting through this master class, all I can say is... dang, sign me up to take this course again!
Photo provided by SCFTA.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Catch Feinstein on November 8, 2012 at the American Jewish University for The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs (a Performance, Conversation and Book Signing). Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information call (310) 440-1246 or visit www.ajula.edu/cjb.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret Series continues with Lea Salonga (January 19, 2013) followed by Marin Mazzie & Jason Danieley (February 14-16, 2013), Barbara Cook's 85th Birthday Concert (April 13, 2013), and, finally, Betty Buckley (May 16-18, 2013).
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.SCFTA.org.