Sunday, June 30, 2013

Michael Feinstein's pantheon of American popular singers expands festively

We tend to think the best context for understanding cultural values is provided by the past. No doubt that lies behind Michael Feinstein's efforts to memorialize extraordinary contributions to the American popular song with the Center for the Performing Arts' Songbook Hall of Fame.

Nick Ziobro performs at Hall of Fame Induction
With Feinstein as affable host, the Palladium on Saturday night celebrated the second annual induction of luminaries into his burgeoning pantheon of tuneful titans. Rita Moreno, Jimmy Webb and Liza Minnelli were on hand to accept their laurels, and Frank Sinatra was honored posthumously. At least one fan of my acquaintance yearned for a surprise appearance by Ol' Blue Eyes, but the event remained well on this side of the supernatural.

Though the past sets up a reminder that good popular songs were built to last, substantial hope for the future is required to invest such a celebration with significance. That's where some of the entertainment came in, especially when the honorees were not being specifically feted. It was a canny gesture in support of what the Feinstein Initiative is trying to build through its annual competition for high-school singers that last year's winner, Nick Ziobro, was invited to perform.

He did a snappy version of  "I Won't Dance," moving with ease about the stage and singing with clarity and punch.  The teenager from upstate New York has been impressive the few times I've heard him, especially  in the way he stays on top of the beat and doesn't seem so much to be supported by the band as leading the charge. And whoever did the peppy, colorful arrangement of the Jerome Kern evergreen — performed brightly by the occasion's big band under John Oddo's direction — deserves special kudos.

There was youth represented in another genre, though tightly linked to the swagger of the deceased  honoree, when Jill Godwin of Dance Kaleidoscope performed her solo from DK's "Ol' Blue Eyes" tribute show to Frank Sinatra. "That's Life" is the sort of song made for Godwin's sass and exuberance, her ability to snap into and out of poses in rapid succession. And she did so investing each one with attitude and the same sort of on-top-of-the-beat precision Ziobro demonstrated vocally in "I Won't Dance."

What  the rest of the program did best was to celebrate the honorees and bring their long histories to the fore. This purpose was served by brief screened career biographies of each, with resume-rich voice-over narration accompanying a parade of career photos of Sinatra, Webb, Moreno and Minnelli.

Tom Wopat was on hand to honor Webb by singing "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," to which Feinstein added his version of "Didn't We?," a wistful early Webb song.

The program went a little farther afield when singer-guitarist Jose Feliciano saluted the Puerto Rican singer-dancer-actress with a plangent Spanish version of "Strangers in the Night." He was introduced by actor Jimmy Smits, who emphasized Moreno's trailblazing record with respect to putting Latin American entertainers squarely in the North American entertainment picture.

In the absence of tribute guest Megan Hilty (unable to make the gig because of weather-related flight problems), Feinstein offered a full-bore rendition of "Maybe This Time" (from "Cabaret"). He is quite capable of putting behind him his piano-bar origins as an entertainer and belting out large-scale interpretations of the sort that are part of Minnelli's brand. And thus the audience was invited to call up from the halls of memory Minnelli's accomplishments as an entertainer once she came onstage to accept her award and sing "New York, New York."

Michael Feinstein presents Liza Minnelli with her Hall of Fame award.
The performance was a good lesson in the value of finding the appropriate context for the American popular song in the glories of its past. It helped lend a rosy glow to the atmosphere of celebration extended by the after party. That cheerful culmination drew throngs nibbling top-drawer snacks and quaffing adult beverages into three rooms around the Palladium's periphery, each of them focused on a different musical subgenre based on the imperishable Great American Songbook.