Michael Feinstein’s Standard Time: Harold Arlen: The World on a String

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Standard Time with Michael Feinstein

Harold Arlen: The World on a String

Zankel Hall, NYC,  October 26, 2017

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Michael Feinstein

Hyman Arluck (1905‐1986) aka Harold Arlen was, by 15, a school drop-out, playing piano all over his home town of Buffalo, making considerable money. The young man’s ambitions were to become a vocalist, but abject stage fright got in the way.

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In New York, he became a rehearsal pianist and discovered songwriting. We reap the benefits.

Michael Feinstein subtitles Harold Arlen: The World on a String: “Jews who can write the blues…Arlen was probably the guy who put the blues and jazz into pop songs, a successor of George Gershwin.” The honoree’s “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (lyrics: Ted Koehler) arrives cottony and longlined, not, as it’s often interpreted, either harsh or howling. Feinstein tells us it was the only composition Arlen would acknowledge as purposeful blues.

Our host is aware that songs are “often commandeered by a version.” Like the earlier blues, he performs, “I’ve Got the World on a String” (Koehler) and “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” (E.Y. “Yip” Harburg) in variants to which we’re unaccustomed. Rather than jaunty, the first begins slowed. Tedd Firth’s piano shadows. Lyrics are as surprised and grateful as they are happy. The second is almost a stage whisper showcasing extraordinary control. Joe is not within this singer’s grasp. Firth’s piano is the definition of tenderness.

A low-key, thoughtful version of “My Shining Hour” (Koehler) and hopeful “This Time the Dream’s on Me” (Johnny Mercer) find our host sensitive at the piano. The latter ends with a note that floats. In the early 1930s, Arlen and Koehler wrote five Cotton Club revues. From these, Feinstein sings “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” bookended by “As Long as I Live.” Numbers bounce along lightly.

The artist also takes the piano for “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/the Nerve” from The Wizard of Oz, a writing job coveted by every songwriting team in Hollywood.  Many of us played one of these roles at summer camp; many more remember every word. I’d lay odds smiles pop up all over the audience like peeking Munchkins. Feinstein’s “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” from The Marx Brothers’ movie A Day at the Circus also elicits grins. (We’re solicited to sing the chorus of la-las.) The performer clearly enjoys sharing both of these Arlen/Harburg collaborations.

Decked out in period apparel, Australian Ali McGregor offers “Sweet and Hot” (Jack Yellen). Octaves fluidly slide, dip, and spin in this sassy rendition.

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The vocalist, apparently trained operatically, seems here to have cut her teeth on swing. “That Old Black Magic” (Mercer) McGregor comments, was written while Mercer was having “a torrid love affair with Judy Garland, which makes sense cause this song is hot, but also unhinged.” Her unique arrangement certainly fits that introduction. At first, backed by a sultry march, her voice emerges as if squeezed out of a tube, spicy, thick, and haunting; “kisssss,” she intones, and “FI- ERRRR.” The number then turns into a crazed jitterbug ending in an unexpectedly high soprano. McGregor’s later offerings are more musically conscious and less about lyrics.

The singing/tap dancing Honey Taps, replete with platinum wigs, perform several numbers with exuberance and style, if not neat synchronicity. An earlier era is infectiously evoked. Canned music for the troops; turns was a bit discomfiting, however.

Feinstein and McGregor duet eleven o’clock numbers with Feinstein’s shimmering “Over the Rainbow” (we join in the last verse), confirming delight in the music of Harold Arlen. The host’s talents are once again manifest in spades.

Musicians also include Phil Palombi (bass) and Mark McLean (drums).

Standard Time concerts return February 14 and March 21, 2018 https://www.carnegiehall.org/Subscriptions/2017-2018-Season/Standard-Time-with-Michael-Feinstein/

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Chuck Prentiss

    Michael Feinstein Was, Is ,and Continues to be, the Absolute Best. Feinstein and Arlen are a Dynamite, Knockout, Can’t-Miss Combination.

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