Sutton Foster charms at swanky new Feinstein’s

Feinstein's at the Nikko

San Francisco Bay Area cabaret lovers drooped a little when The Rrazz Room, after attempting to make a go of it after departing the Hotel Nikko, finally packed up and headed out of town earlier this year.

But as Maria von Trapp is fond of saying, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” In this, case credit is due not so much the Lord (apologies) but to Michael Feinstein, one of this country’s greatest natural resources and practically a one-man juggernaut in celebration (and preservation) of the Great American Songbook.

Consider what this man is doing these days: he constantly criss-crosses the country performing in concert with symphonies and makes audiences very happy. He’s spearheading the The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, which is based out of the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana. He just broadcast the third season of “Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook,” a fascinating series on PBS. He just published the book The Gershwins and Me (well worth a read, and the CD tucked into the back cover is sublime, with Feinstein singing and Cyrus Chestnut playing 12 Gershwin tunes).

He closed his New York nightclub at the Loew’s Regency last New Year’s Eve after 14 years (there are rumored plans of opening another Manhattan club), but at the end of April, there he was on stage for two private concerts in the former Rrazz Room space launching Feinstein’s at the Nikko.

San Francisco is where the young Feinstein cut his cabaret teeth – at the dear, departed Plush Room, to be exact. And it’s thrilling to have Feinstein back. He’s got an upcoming gig with the San Francisco Symphony on July 12 (info here) pegging to his Gershwin book, and after that he says we can expect him back regularly at Feinstein’s at the Nikko.

Sutton Foster - Laura Marie Duncan Jr

To officially open the room to the public, Feinstein and his team made a shrewd choice in two-time Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster. She’s a classic ingenue in the great Broadway tradition yet she’s contemporary (a moment to give a shout out to “Bunheads,” Foster’s sublime TV series on ABC Family – can we PLEASE have a second season of this sweet and witty series? Please?). To my mind, she’s a Mary Tyler Moore for the 21st century, with a little Ethel Merman and Julie Andrews thrown in for good measure.

Foster’s 70-minute show is pure delight. Her dress selection shows off her incredible legs, and her song selection demonstrates that she’s more than just a pretty (and pretty big) voice.

She pays homage to her Broadway roots in medley of songs from her shows Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie and Little Women that bursts with optimism, then toward the end of the set she reveals a little more world weariness with a Sondheim blend of “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Being Alive.”

Musical director/arranger/accompanist Michael Rafter supports Foster with sensitive playing throughout her polished standards (“Nice and Easy,” “The Nearness of You,” “Warm All Over,” “I Get a Kick Out of You”) and on some of the more dramatic story songs such as Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men” and Rupert Holmes’ “The People That You Never Get to Love.”

Foster shows off assured comic timing in Christine Lavin’s “Air Conditioner,” in which an overheated Manhattan dame is willing to throw down for anyone with AC.

The show’s sweetest moment wasn’t in “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” which was a little too sweet for my taste but rather in a medley of “It Only Takes a Moment” and “Time After Time.” Foster performed the song, without the aid of a microphone (like she ever really needs a microphone) to her adorable little dog Linus, who was sitting comfortably in her lap.

Though Foster doesn’t spend a lot of time on patter, and when she sings, she mostly directs her attention straight ahead and doesn’t really play the room, she oozes charm and cheerful good will. She sells Nat “King” Cole’s “It’s Crazy But I’m in Love” and Harry Nilsson’s “Good Old Desk” with a quiet voice that is the aural equivalent of a smile.

But on several songs, which she makes inextricably her own, we get more depth from this 38-year-old performer. “My Heart Was Set on You” by Jeff Blumenkrantz is heartbreaking, and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” is a wistful way to say goodnight to the audience (before storming back with a microphone-free “Anything Goes”).

Sutton Foster continues through July 12 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $75-$95 (note: ticket price includes a $30 food and beverage credit). Call (415) 394-1111 or visit for information.

Bravo Bernstein! San Francisco celebrates Lenny

The great American composer Leonard Bernstein would have been 90 this year, and the man who gave us the memorable music for West Side Story, Candide and other Broadway shows, among all his other symphonic work, is being celebrated in style.

The San Francisco Symphony leads the celebration with Michael Tilson Thomas, a longtime friend and colleague of the late composer, conducting an all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19. The program includes some of his show music — West Side Story, Trouble in Tahiti, Fancy Free and On the Town – as well as Meditation No. 1 from Mass, scenes from A Quiet Place and “To What You Said” from Songfest.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, baritone Quinn Kelsey and cellist Peter Wyrick are the soloists. Tilson Thomas, Upshaw and the Symphony will perform the same program on Sept. 24 to open Carnegie Hall’s 2008-09 season.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is also part of the Bernstein celebration with a screening of the PBS documentary Reaching for the Note, which delves into Bernstein’s musical and personal life. The screening is free at 7 p.m. Nov. 20 but reservations are required.

At 8 p.m. Dec. 4, pianist Jeffrey Siegel offers The Anniversaire Pieces, Bernstein’s musical tributes written for friends, family and fellow composers, as well as Meditation on a Wedding and El Salon Mexico.

Cantor Roslyn Barak presents Lenny’s Voice: Bernstein’s Humor and Jewish Spirit at 7 p.m. Dec. 4.

Also in the series is JCCSF’s benefit event: 100% Michael Feinstein – Bernstein and Friends on Nov. 23 with cocktails at 5 p.m. and the concert at 7 p.m. when Feinstein reprises his Carnegie Hall tribute to his friend and mentor.

Recalling his friend, Tilson Thomas recently told an interviewer: “If Leonard Bernstein were here right now and asked to comment on his 90th birthday, I know he would say, `I didn’t compose enough.’ He was so busy being an entertainer and educator that he lost years and years of time. Now we wish, along with him, that he had written more. He was interested in so many different musical genres. In this program we’re doing in honor of what would have been his 90th birthday, we are going to try and celebrate the range of his musical interests. So there will be some of the most familiar music from some of the great shows and ballets, but also some really challenging pieces that come from his last opera, A Quiet Place, as well as a kind of gala show of music—some of the most mournful, some of the most irreverent, some of the most blithely innocent, some of the most self-consciously tortured: the whole range of the possibility of his music to amuse, to delight, to provoke, to question.”

And thinking about the Bernstein legacy, Tilson Thomas said: “Bernstein continues to have a great influence on all the people he taught and trained and influenced. Over the course of time, it may be that the language of his music will become more remote from audiences, but I think there will still be a certain kind of heart inside of it that will always be recognized as symbolizing a particular period in the United States, when people were very confident and very generous. To me, he represents someone from the generation of young victors of the Second World War—who, looking out at the world from the United States, which was pretty much in an all-triumphant position, still had such an interest in celebrating the cultural tradition of other nations: the great European traditions, the South American traditions, Asian traditions. Bernstein was already in that place long before it was as politically fashionable and correct as it is now. He had a courageous and generous spirit, and I think such spirits make a difference.”

The San Francisco Symphony performs its all-Bernstein program Sept. 17-19 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$130. Call 415-864-6000 or visit

For information about the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Bernstein events, call 415-292-9933 or visit

Now here’s four minutes of heaven as Bernstein conducts the overture from Candide:

Hello, Jerry Herman!

Saw a fantastic documentary last night that I highly recommend: Word and Music by Jerry Herman. It was on PBS for about a second, but it’s available via PBS Home Video.

Clearly this was a labor of love for Amber Edwards, who produced, wrote, directed and edited the 90-minute movie. She adores Herman, and it’s easy to see why. He’s frank, funny and endearing. He and Edwards do corny things like visit his childhood home and grade school, but the better part of the film is spent concentrating on Herman’s extraordinary work. And it is extraordinary. Too often Herman is dismissed for not being Sondheim. But there’s something to be said for a man who writes music and lyrics that inspire joy, or at the very least, a smile. Herman is more than capable of doing that.

Of the many talking heads, Michael Feinstein is the most eloquent about Herman’s musical skill, which is underrated. Feinstein demonstrates Herman’s skill by singing a song cut from Hello, Dolly! called “Penny in My Pocket,” then he unleashes Herman’s genius for lyric and melody when he sings “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel.

There’s great footage — seemingly from somebody’s home movie camera — from the original Broadway productions of Dolly and Mame. Of particular interest to me was the section on Dear World, the flop the followed hot on the heels of the Dolly-Mame juggernaut. Angela Lansbury starred in Herman’s musical adaptation of Giradoux’s The Mad Woman of Chaillot. It’s my favorite of Herman’s scores, and, somewhat ironically, it contains some of his worst songs. I’ll gladly tolerate the mediocrity of the title song (which Herman admits was a mistake) to revel in the rich musical pleasures of “Each Tomorrow Morning” or “I Don’t Want to Know.” Lansbury says she must take some of the blame for the show’s failure (in spite of the Tony Award she won for it), but the divine Angela can’t really be blamed for anything but being a consummate pro.

Another of the movie’s heroes is George Hearn, who did drag in a big way in Herman’s La Cage aux Folles. I had no idea that Hearn, who was genius in the role of ZaZa/Albin, was embarrassed by the drag — at first. He got used to it. Hearn is clearly moved by the experience to this day and the effect the musical had on people.

The extras on the DVD are few but delectable. We get the full title song from Hello, Dolly! as performed at Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural ball in 1965 (black and white, small stage, synched to the original cast recording). Carol Channing is at her preening best. There’s also a well filmed clip of a number called “Dancin’ Shoes,” which Herman wrote for his 1955 college show at the University of Miami. It’s very Gene Kelly-ish. And finally, from The Merv Griffin Show, we get a great clip of Herman playing piano while Ethel Merman sings “Before the Parade Passes By.” We don’t get much of Ethel and Jerry’s time on Merv’s couch (where Lucille Ball, curiously, is a guest), but we get a tasty morsel.

Seeing Herman’s body of work together like this — from Parade and Milk and Honey to The Grand Tour — helps foster new appreciation for a great American composer who, when all is said and done, will find his place next to greats such as Irving Berlin and, yes, Stephen Sondheim.

For more information visit

Here’s the brilliant George Hearn singing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles.”

Michael Feinsten: Standard bearer

Michael Feinstein is one of the most in-demand crooners in the land. If people want sophistication, elegance and abundant love and knowledge of the Great American Songbook, they immediately turn to Feinstein.

For more than 20 years, Feinstein has reigned as the King of Cabaret, the Sultan of Standards and the Torch Bearer for Torch Songs.

A formidable interpreter of American classics from Gershwin to Berlin to Jimmy Webb (yes, he pays attention to modern songwriters as well), Feinstein is also an incredible storehouse of facts and lore. He has invested years in preserving the legacy of America’s greatest songwriters, and he recently created the Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of American Popular Music to do just that.

But at the moment, all of his good works for American song are taking a back seat to his other career: showman.

On Saturday he finishes up the run of his annual holiday show at his New York nightclub, Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, and Sunday he flies to San Francisco, where he’ll have one rehearsal before he performs at 7 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony. He’ll repeat the show the following night, New Year’s Eve.

“This is how I like to experience the holidays,” Feinstein says. “I like to see the holidays through the eyes of audience members who all have different things they appreciate about this time of year. I sing the songs and look into the eyes of the people, see their reaction to the music. That’s much more fulfilling than sitting at home looking at a Christmas tree.”

Feinstein, 51, is officially bicoastal. He has an Upper East Side home in Manhattan, and in Los Angeles, he lives in what used to be the Russian consulate.

“Kruschev slept there,” Feinstein says.

In his late 20s, when he was starting to break out of piano bars and gain some notice, Feinstein played San Francisco’s Plush Room, which was then newly reopened.

“I was having a whale of a time then,” Feinstein recalls. “It was a great, magical room for connecting with audiences. I have so many memories from there. Sammy Cahn came in one night. Milton Berle came in and ended up doing 20 minutes. Irene Manning of Yankee Doodle Dandy came in. Herb Caen wrote about me, `The kid’s got it,’ and it was like being anointed by the Pope. All the intelligentsia, the movers, shakes and money of San Francisco were there.”

Feinstein remembers that era as having “a heightened sense of joy. It was before the world had changed, before the city had changed and before the worst of AIDS. It will never be that again.”

One New Year’s Eve, Feinstein recalls playing the Plush when Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), the actress, was squired into the room.

“She was an old-guard Hollywood actress, bowing and waving, and she was seated down front by the piano. She was drinking Champagne, and as the evening progressed, she got loopy and drunk, then kind of quieted into a stupor. Then she was bubbling like a tea kettle, mumbling under her breath. She started heckling me and told me, `Shut up! You can’t play. Get off the stage.’ I went from being thrilled to having Joan Fontaine in the audience to praying she would pass out.”

This New Year’s Eve promises to be a little less belligerent.

“Working with the symphony in one of my favorite cities is fantastic,” Feinstein says. “I’m a romantic, and New Year’s Eve should be romantic and celebratory. One of the songs we’ll be singing is `Here’s to Us’ and another is `The Folks Who Live on the Hill.'”

Keeping songs like those alive is of paramount importance to Feinstein, who has amassed an impressive collection of American song-related artifacts. Recently he bought what was left of a collection of production discs from the MGM musical days that include outtakes and demos.

“There’s no money in preservation,” Feinstein says, which is why he created a foundation to spearhead a national effort. “If it’s not The Wizard of Oz and not deemed viable to turn a profit, nobody’s interested.”

Though classic American song — what many call standards — is still alive and well, more attention needs to be paid, Feinstein says.

“New audiences are discovering this music all the time — they hear it at the movies and on TV,” he says. “It’s such adaptable music. It can survive Rod Stewart and other mediocre interpretations, which still get the music out there and please millions of people. People get something from this music like they do from Beethoven, Shakespeare or Picasso. There’s a unique value to it, not limited to a certain age group.”

Twenty years ago, Feinstein wondered if he’d have an audience in the future because his brand of music seemed to appeal so strongly with older people. And though older people continue to connect with the music, younger people are constantly discovering it.

“I still have an audience and will continue to have an audience,” Feinstein says. “This music will endure. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Upcoming for Feinstein: He’s working with his pal Liza Minnelli on a CD of songs by Minnelli’s godmother, the great Kay Thompson; he’ll perform in London next month at Feinstein’s at the Shaw, a newly christened performance space; he’s producing a documentary on the late Kitty Carlisle Hart; and his musical, Perspectives, will likely have its debut in London’s West End.

Michael Feinstein and the San Francisco Symphony shows are at 7 p.m. Dec. 30 and 9 p.m. Dec. 31 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are $20 to $175. Call 415-864-6000 or visit

For more information on Feinstein, visit his Web site at