Hats Off to Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein


“Hats off/Here she comes/that beautiful girl/That’s what /you’ve been waiting for…” *sings Michael Feinstein, top hat in hand, as he escorts Barbara Cook to the stage and helps her up. Cook has not been well. Feinstein appreciates he’s hosting a national treasure, treating her with deference and affection.

The duo of preeminent entertainers offer “a holiday gift that encapsulates everything important to us to celebrate…” i.e. the artists and performers who embody the “lineage” of the Great American Songbook. They begin with Irving Berlin. A breezy duet of “I Got the Sun in the Morning” charmed by the texture of a clarinet and Feinstein’s whistling, is followed by Cook’s solo “I Got Lost in His Arms”. The singer takes several very deep breaths, steadies herself with an arm on the piano and acts the hell out of the lyric. That every note is not reached and her power somewhat diminished does little to affect Cook’s ability to communicate, to move us. A later solo of “Here’s to Life” (Artie Butler/Phyllis Molinary) palpably aches. Cook looks to the heavens, closes her eyes and sings from the depth of her being.

A medley of two songs performed by Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short, whose interpretive song styling influenced them both, is next performed by Feinstein. The arrangement of “Let Me Love You” (Bart Howard) and “Let There Be Love” (Lionel Rand/Ian Grant). evokes a country club dance out of the 1960’s with the vocalist in a white dinner jacket crooning from a bandstand. Feinstein’s leg moves from the knee or he pats his thigh to the swinging beat—as his richer-than-ever voice sails smoothly over our heads. He turns slowly from one side of the room to the other including, but never focusing on anything but the song.

One of two highlights is a duet medley including “Isn’t It Romantic” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) and “Wasn’t It Romantic” (Hugh Martin/ Marshall Barer) in tribute to Fred Astaire. “Yes, I know, he danced too,” quips Feinstein. The vocalists never take their gaze from one another. His back is to me; her eyes could melt you. The swaying arrangement is feather light with lots of gentle brushes. It’s an intimate counterpoint and works beautifully. Their rendition of Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” is another. Beginning with Mike Renzi’s artful “variations on the introduction”—he leans in, but never over the piano as if coaxing the music—the song personifies what Cook calls “the deceptive simplicity of Irving Berlin” as delivered with deceptive ease by two genuine pros.

For my money, though Feinstein at the piano accompanying himself is always a treat (he does Michelle Brourman’s “My Favorite Year,” a nod to the great Margaret Whiting), his interpretation of “Fifty Percent “(Alan and Marilyn Bergman/Billy Golden) is the performer’s showstopper.

“I don’t pick out his ties/Or expect his tomorrows/But I feel when he’s in my arms/He’s where he wants to be…” he sings, with only the piano beneath him. There’s a hint of a sob in his unconditional dramatization as the song swells to fullness rivaling anything by Jacques Brel and a very slight vibrato I don’t think I’ve ever heard from him before. To my left, a couple from Alaska take one another’s hands under the table. To my right, an older married man from California puts his arm around the shoulder of his love, his wife. (I learned details before the show).

The show also contains upbeat and up-tempo numbers with lots of almost-big band sound and loose, seemingly unrehearsed, interim patter. When Feinstein sings “Golly gee, fellas/Find her a brand new knee, fellas” to Cook, to the tune of Jerry Herman’s “Hello Dolly,” he’s offering information affecting this evening which was irrelevant during her last appearance at Feinstein’s not even a year ago. The stage is thick with admiration and respect. As is the audience. A warm, holiday sing-along provides closure. Fans rise to their feet.

On Saturday December 3, Barbara Cook will receive a Kennedy Center medal for her “lifetime contribution to American culture.” Brava. And please get better soon.

*Stephen Sondheim from Follies

Michael Feinstein & Barbara Cook
Mike Renzi-Piano, Musical Director
Sean Smith-Bass
Warren Odze-Drums
Barry Danielian-Trumpet
Aaron Heick-Flute, Saxophone
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency
540 Park Ave at 61st Street

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