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Someone to watch over Gershwin

By Alan BunceStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 1986

New York

WHEN entertainer Michael Feinstein -- the rising young interpreter of Gershwin-era show tunes -- was a small child, his talent once got him in trouble. Toddling over to the family piano, he began to pick out ``Do-Re-Mi,'' a song from ``The Sound of Music'' he'd recently heard on the phonograph. ``When did your father teach you that?'' his mother asked Michael, who'd never played anything before. When he kept insisting he hadn't learned it from his father but was playing it by ear, his exasperated mother sent him to bed without supper -- until Dad came home and confirmed the tot's story.

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Nobody hearing one of Mr. Feinstein's sparkling supper-club performances today will doubt that his early promise has been richly realized. Still playing and singing by ear, he presides at the keyboard like a blithe spirit of the '30s and '40s, deftly ushering in the music of that period with a grace and aplomb that not only have garnered raves in the United States, but have earned him a London debut to be made in July. His record and cassette ``Pure Gershwin'' (Parnassus label) -- a sleeper hit -- is steadily broadening his audience. ``Live at the Algonquin,'' a new record (and cassette) with an Al Hirschfeld caricature of Feinstein on the jacket, has just been released. Among his other dates, he performs next year in the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an all-Gershwin program.

For many young people, meanwhile, Feinstein is a bridge to a world the rock era has largely overlooked: a gentler age of memorable melodies and gemlike lyrics.

``Younger people are turning more and more to this other kind of music, because they're getting the things they need from it,'' Feinstein told me as we sat in the fabled Algonquin lobby, near that hotel's Oak Room where he was performing twice a night.

``Gershwin and Rodgers and Kern and Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen -- they all wrote music that affects people in the heart, in addition to having 40 years of memories connected with them. It's therapeutic. Their songs are written to create the effect of joy and enthusiasm . . . .

``I think contemporary music reflects what's going on in the world, and that's why we now have chaotic music -- music with values on the beat instead of the lyric -- or dissonant music, or punk, or whatever. But many young people are realizing that there is a different type of music that helps them express another part of their personality.

``Music affects people more than they realize. I always perform with the intention of reaching the hearts of people, of creating some sort of harmony in their lives.''

Feinstein's theories come delightfully to life in his performances. At a recent session in the mellow ambiance of the Oak Room he had a sophisticated audience both amused and entranced as he played the piano and sang into the mike, wearing a smile that seemed to say this is what life is all about. His clear, refreshingly unaffected voice delivered songs like Gershwin's ``Someone to Watch Over Me,'' ``Our Love Is Here to Stay,'' and `` 'S Wonderful'' with a boyish elegance that worked equally well with love themes and comedy numbers.

He grinned fondly at some of the gymnastic lyrics (``S' exceptionelle,'' ``s' no bagatelle'') like an amused parent at a child doing somersaults, but the heart of the numbers remained glowingly intact in his reverent hands. And Feinstein linked the songs in a chain of comments (``I know what you're thinking -- they don't write them like that anymore''), anecdotes (including snippets of his own life story), and modest jokes that place the music in its show-business setting. After finishing Gershwin's ``Embraceable You,'' he introduced Ginger Rogers, who first sang the song in the 1930 Broadway musical ``Girl Crazy.''