Michael Feinstein fans tell that he is a little subdued in 2016’s “A Holiday To Remember” -his annual Christmas Extravaganza, if you can call Michael and a three piece band extravagant. Usually, it is a camp wonderland of Santa hats and forced gaiety, but this year, a tribute to Judy Garland, is a quieter affair, A straightforward look at Judy Garland’s career with stops at “The Wizard Of Oz”, “Meet Me In St. Louis”, “Easter Parade” and more. At the start, Feinstein denies her more or less self-evident tragic persona to claim she was a life affirming force of nature with a great sense of humor, who had found true happiness just before dying of a drug overdose. An interesting concept, no doubt.
Interesting, but inaccurate, and that’s a good thing. Feinstein has an exuberance that bypasses his waning youth and bypasses Judy’s dismantled Hollywood royalty, to find a heart beating back into back into a mooted disastrousness personified by the “if the fates allow’ instant caveat. Whether honoring the lost on “That’s Entertainment”, or tricking out WC Handy on “Saint Louis Blues”, slowing emoting the devastated gravitational pull of “After The Holiday” or repositioning the bewitched neediness of “If I Only Had A Brain”, Feinstein’s Garland is closer to the real Garland than he claims. If you saw Rufus Wainwright’s overwrought tribute at Carnegie Hall earlier this year (here), you’ll understand how clearly difficult an assignment it is, better left to drag queens… or to Feinstein, who by doing what Rufus didn’t do, settling back on the material and trusting himself, he managed to capture something, perhaps something he didn’t want to.
If you’ve never been to “54 Below”, please do go. Located in the basement of the former Studio 54, it is a luxurious 1% with big prices, but really big rewards. A gorgeous décor, fine seating that doesn’t crowd you in like Café Carlyle or City Winery. The food was first rate, though expensive, and the time table superb. Doors at 515, Feinstein went on by 715 and we were done at 845, The crowd were on the well heeled older side, but knowledgeable enough to applaud the Andy Warhol painted Judy Garland portraits on loan from Liza with a Z, on either side of the stage. With a rhythm section, drummer Mark McLean and bassist Phil Palombi, more attuned to jazz than the purist pop of the Great American Songbook, to add clout to a raucous standout medley of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “You Made Me Love You,” and “The Trolley Song, Feinstein wasn’t glumm (!) at all. Though playing a hitherto unheard recording of Judy singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” (with Feinstein the faintest of accompanist on piano and back up vocals) set the true tenor.
In ways that Rufus, and numerous impressionists, haven’t, Feinstein seemed to find a way into Garland, it was more like the Garland of Peter Quilter’s “End Of The Rainbow” -sometimes joy, sometimes tragic, but never moving from the trajectory, unable to get out of the way of her fate. Feinstein strenuously denies this but he is too gifted to escape it. This man knows pop inside and out, he is such a student that he connected Judy to Martha Reeve’s not through their duet on “Saint Louis Blues” but through a shared former husband, David Rose. Old jokes met new performers (Kate something, a sixteen year old , tackled “The Boy Next Door”), but they were sidelines to Feinstein’s balancing act: he seems to want to change Judy’s fate but on the impeccable close “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, he leaves us and her to muddle through somehow until, of course, we don’t. For some obscure reason, a funeral slow and sad and powerful “You’ll Never Walk Alone” acts as a cheerfulness and it isn’t at all, “Once In My Life” is a penultimate swing for the rafters and that even feels sad in a sense.
The problem is, Garland is a sad figure and not just because of her early death and romantic sorrows but something deep inside her, deep within a life of pure celebrity hood where she was lost to fame. I think it is the thing we see in Andy Hardy movies, and the Wizard Of Oz, there is an indelible sadness about her, even when smiling and happy, her happiness is an echo chamber hollow compared to her sorrow. That Feinstein captures this can be attributed to the skills of a man who learnt at the feet of Ira Gershwin, he has what Rufus didn’t have and Michael Buble can’t approach, a bone deep feel for the Great American Songbook. Judy got the tribute she deserves.
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