Over the years, I have had the great fortune of witnessing numerous performances of the renowned five-time Grammy nominated Michael Feinstein —in fact, so many times, that I have lost count of the number. The reason I have seen him so often is because of his regular appearances at The Palladium at the Center of The Performing Arts in Carmel where he has served as its artistic director since 2009. Now, the cabaret that bears his name, Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael, which is immediately west of The Palladium, hosts the entertainer regularly so I expect I will also see his shows there as well.
But of the countless Feinstein performances I have seen since covering him for decades, his magnificent tribute to Judy Garland, “Get Happy: Michael Feinstein Celebrates the Judy Garland Centennial” ranks among his finest. I saw the concert on Saturday, April 29.
Garland’s superstar daughter Liza Minnelli, a pop culture legend herself, served as executive producer for the concert and was hands on its creation. She also loaned family archives, suggested songs and their interpretation, and help formulate the program. Another member of the show’s creative team was historian John Fricke, author of several books about Garland and her most famous film, “The Wizard of Oz.” Making the multi-media production truly unique, Feinstein gained access to more than 7,000 photographs as well as home movies and graphic images which made for a distinctive collage that was projected on a massive screen high above the stage. The result was a concert that doubled as a live documentary with Feinstein providing the soundtrack consisting of songs made famous by Garland and fascinating narration, detailing her professional and personal history, presumably written by Feinstein himself who is a brilliant music historian and raconteur.
Joined by his superb music director and pianist Tedd Furth, bass player David Franck and drummer Mark McLean. Feinstein also took to the keys to play several times. Singing flawlessly in his rich baritone, he styled songs with a dreamy, breathless, quality tinged with a sweet melancholy, that is his and his alone. In a program replete with highlights and showstoppers, those most satisfying and meaningful to this inveterate Garland fan included “Get Happy,” “Zing Went the Strings of my Heart,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Chicago,” “The Man That God Away,” “San Francisco,” and what he said was one of Judy’s favorite songs, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Two of the most compelling moments in the two-hour concert was Feinstein accompanying Garland on piano as she sang “I’ll Be Seeing You” off an long lost recording she made a Capella and which he discovered while touring her home. The other instance, and a stunning one at that, occurred when he closed the concert while accompanying Garland once again on piano. This time her harmonized with her as she sang “Over the Rainbow” on a film clip from a World War II performance. Making the poignant duet even more captivating was the fact that the piano, donated to the Songbook Foundation by a relative, once belonged to Harold Arlen who composed the timeless classic on that same instrument.
There is no one else, short of Minelli who rarely performs Garland’s signature songs, who can convey the emotional quality of Judy’ music better than Feinstein. In the program he noted that “She had the gift of being an extraordinary singer, a superb dancer and a fine actress, and she always dazzled her coworkers with her ability to assimilate and express vulnerability and the human condition in such an honest and clear fashion,” Feinstein who is celebrated as the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook proved during this musical anthology of Garland’s body of work that he, indeed, is a worthy keeper of her prodigious flame.