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"Swingin’ the Night Away" with Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Monday Sep 17, 2012
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Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye open the season at Feinstein’s
Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye open the season at Feinstein’s  (Source:Stephen Sorokoff)

If you want to read a doctoral thesis on cabaret song styling, one probably exists in some musty university library. What Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye are giving every night at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, the upscale Uptown cabaret, is a much more enjoyable way to learn, at the feet of two PhDs in the medium.

These two veteran singers compress a whole years’ coursework into a little more than an hour in a program that encapsulates everything that is great -- and even maybe not-too-great -- about contemporary saloon singing.

After seeing the energy, voice control and good looks of these two performers, I was genuinely shocked to find out that Feinstein is 55 and Maye 84. That smooth, boyishly handsome face on such a trim frame makes Feinstein look more like a boychik only a few years past his bar mitzvah. As for Maye, all I can say is that any singer half -- no, make that one-third -- her age should only pray to be able to grab an audience like that.

What makes the evening so much fun and coherent is the rapport between the two singers. Even if there’s an element of put-on-a-show, they come across as truly enjoying each other’s company. Even more, they not only make what they’re doing seem effortless; they make it fun.

The night I attended, Feinstein hit it out of the park when he asked the audience to throw numbers at him and he would do one from memory. Or is it instinct? I’m not sure, but he combined two into an impromptu medley of "I Like New York in June" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." With his hands embellishing the melody lines on the piano, his satin voice took everyone back to a time when the words "New York" could invoke magic from great composers.

Maye proved her chops with a vocal version of Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic "Take Five" that provided plenty of opportunities for scat and syncopation. She described giving a lesson to a much younger singer and imitated her breathing after every two lines. Lesson learned: Maye chomped down line after line and waited so long we never noticed she was breathing at all.

What makes the evening so much fun and coherent is the rapport between the two singers. Even if there’s an element of put-on-a-show, they come across as truly enjoying each other’s company.

She gave the same firepower to the Andrew Sisters’ "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" that made me forget entirely Bette Midler’s famous interpretation. Her mash-up of two songs from "My Fair Lady" was a slow build-up but worth it for the final punch.

Feinstein showed his own ability for jazzy delivery with "It’s a Most Unusual Day." The song highlighted the mid-range be-bop that works best for his voice, which resembles Tony Bennett in his salad years. Less successful was his higher-register tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, "The Way We Were," which, to my ears, was too reedy for this evocative ballad.

When he sat down to the piano to pound out the rockabilly anthem "Great Balls of Fire," however, he was on fire, a roadhouse pounder channeling Jerry Lee Lewis. Feinstein gave the ancient chestnut "Hooray for Hollywood" a hilarious musical intro about being star struck as a kid (he imagines the ideal mother as Joan Crawford) and updates the lyrics, again with a sweeping, finger-snapping delivery.

The banter was as entertaining as the music. Feinstein made joking references to his Jewish heritage and a passing remark (or two) to his sexual identity. Maye, however, got the biggest laughs of the evening when she told Feinstein that she was Jewish by -- I believe she said "friendship," but the implication was plain. If that kind of "friendship" means conversion, I’ve variously been Muslim, Zoroaster, Shintu...

Feinstein’s at the Regency is the kind of nightclub where every table not only puts you close to the performers, but also them to you. Audience interactions became as seamless as the onstage ones. The intimate setting, the cocktails, the backup musicians in their tuxedos, all made me feel, well, like a grown-up.

Okay, a medley about rainbows had me thinking more "My Little Pony" and Strawberry Shortcake than cigarettes and sequins. But veering perilously close to the sugary sweet is part of the cabaret experience, too. Remember that when you take your orals toward that doctoral degree.

"Swingin’ the Night Away" with Michael Feinstein & Marilyn Maye runs through Sept 22 at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency,
540 Park Ave. For info or tickets, call 212-339-4096 or visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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