Ryan Chartrand

A true genius of his trade, master pianist Michael Feinstein dazzled the crowd during his Thursday evening performance at the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center.

Feinstein entered stage left to a warm round of appreciative applause, took his seat at a beautiful, satiny-black grand piano and proceeded to entice the audience with an impressive two-hour performance that evoked much laughter, called up fond memories and provided great entertainment for the eager crowd of musical theater patrons.

Feinstein’s very extensive, very impressive knowledge of classical and contemporary musical theater stems largely from that old Hollywood/Broadway staple “The Great American Songbook” collection, which comes complete with everything from Irving Berlin to the Gershwin brothers to Stephen Sondheim.

Feinstein kicked off the evening’s performance with the soulful, ballad-clad “No One Is Alone.” Written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1987 musical “Into The Woods,” the tune took home the Tony Award for Best Score.

As the crowd showered him with heartfelt cheers, whistles and applause, Feinstein changed gears and launched into Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s 1953 classic “That’s Entertainment.” Spiced with just a touch of throaty, deep-voiced growl, Feinstein played with enthusiasm and vigor, bringing the tune home to a rousing, crowd-pleasing finish.

Between most of the songs in the show, Feinstein took the opportunity to connect with the audience on a deeper, more personal level, combining both anecdotal stories and musical history with winning sincerity.

“It’s been four years since I was last here in San Luis Obispo,” he told the crowd. “It’s wonderful to be back.”

As Feinstein related what the songs in “The Great American Songbook” mean to him personally, he successfully translated the joy he felt to the audience.

“These songs are art at the same time that they were being created,” he said. “The opportunity to share this music with you means a lot to me.”

Feinstein moved from classic song to classic song throughout the evening, often alternating from slow, steamy ballads that made the crowd sway from side to side to rough and tumble, piano-key pounding, toe-tapping numbers that caused heads to bob back and forth.

Midway through the show, Feinstein played Irving Berlin’s 1915 classic “I Love A Piano” that he naturally quoted as ” a song about an important love of mine.” Halfway through the tune, he began to sing in an incredibly dead-on Liberace impression that brought delight-filled laughter and cheers from the now-rapt audience.

Moving along at a fair pace, Feinstein regaled the crowd with his fascinating encounter with the legendary Frank Sinatra when he was just twenty years old. Afterward, he sang the graceful “Time After Time,” written by the dynamic team of Julie Styne and Sammy Cahn, and dedicated the tune “to the honor and memory of ol’ blue eyes himself.”

Without hesitation, Feinstein dove right into the bouncy “Rhode Island Is Famous For You” immediately after, telling the crowd “now that’s an unusual love song.”

Other songs of the evening featured the eclectic “If I Only Had A Heart/Brain/Nerve” from 1939’s “The Wizard Of Oz,” and a nice little Cole Porter two-some featuring that jazzy, up-tempo, crowd pleaser “Anything Goes.”

Moving toward the homestretch, Feinstein engaged in a truly heartfelt discussion centered around George and Ira Gershwin that left a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.

He followed this with the first song to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, “Of Thee I Sing,” which was coincidentally written by the Gershwin brothers.

As Feinstein wrapped up an evening of “American Songbook” greats, he took several requests from the audience, including such classics as “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Isn’t It A Pity.”

As quickly as the show was over, though, it was back on just as quickly. After Feinstein exited stage left, he once again took his seat to the delight of all.

Feinstein played a handful of fantastic tunes to a wonderful finale; “Rhapsody In Blue,” “Old Friend” and “S’Wonderful” were among the batch of classic melodies.

He finished his evening to resounding applause, cheers and adoration, all topped off with a very well-earned standing ovation.

This pianist is definitely at the top of his game. He has legions of loyal fans willing to see him play wherever he performs. He is one of those artists who comes along once in a lifetime.

Here’s to hoping Feinstein stays around for a long time to come.

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