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BWW Reviews: Michael Feinstein Takes Audience Over the Rainbow with Tribute to E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg at Carnegie Hall

Oh, innocent victims of Cupid,
Remember this terse little verse;
To let a fool kiss you is stupid,
To let a kiss fool you is worse.

--Inscription on a Lipstick by Yip Harburg

Wednesday night, Michael Feinstein's estimable series Standard Time once again held forth in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, this time celebrating lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Feinstein (left) was joined by guest vocalists Catherine Russell, Nancy Anderson and Malcom Gets.

If you think about it, that the author of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (with Harold Arlen) also notably wrote, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" (with music by Jay Gorney and apparently based on the tune of a Russian lullaby), is not that much of a stretch. Harburg spent his life promoting a brighter future through racial and gender equality and liberal social programs. His songs, as host Feinstein put it, "Eloquently expressed the human condition, leavening it with satire . . . " Feinstein goes on to tell us that Harburg thought of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz as representing farmers, the Tin Woodsman as symbolizing manufacturers, and the Lion as personifying the courage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Despite going to school with Ira Gershwin (proximity is not all), Harburg wrote only light verse until returning from WWI, graduating City College and going bankrupt as a partner in an electrical company. (Two volumes of the witty Ogden Nash-like verse were eventually published.) Gershwin introduced Harburg to Gorney, his first writing partner. ("I left the fantasies of business for the harsh realities of musical theater," Harburg once said.) The two wrote for Broadway musicals and then Hollywood movies. Harburg wrote 500 film, theater and popular songs before and after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

Feinstein began the evening with a medley of Harburg songs reflecting the author's talent and diversity. The artist completely reset himself for each number, yet maintained his educated reverence for the material. Arrangements were fastidious and unfussy spotlighting lyrics. We then heard signature songs of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion with measured, lilting delivery and a light, last growl. Feinstein's dropped 'g's seemed perfectly natural.

Catherine Russell (left in photo below) performed "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" in exactly the tone Feinstein told us Harburg wrote the song: "Bewildered that the powerful machine could collapse so completely; as a proud man asking a vital question." There's no sob in Russell's authoritative voice, no plea. As the song swells, we hear determination not defeat. The vocalist's interpretation of "The Eagle and Me" (Bloomer Girl--music, Harold Arlen) is that of a jazz spiritual--big, bright, and spreading light. It's easy to imagine Russell at a pulpit. Her investment compels, her voice illuminates.

Among other songs rendered by Feinstein were a silvery, swingy, "It's Only a Paper Moon" (music, Harold Arlen), "I Like the Likes of You" (music, Vernon Duke), which Feinstein actually made ingénue-innocent, and "Poor You" (music, Burton Lane) whose message is so charmingly clear it sounds like a monologue.

Prefaced by a film clip of Harburg talking about what the leprechaun Og felt about becoming mortal, Malcom Gets (right in photo left) sang, "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" from Finian's Rainbow (music, Burton Lane.) Gets was in character from the moment he wandered on stage seemingly disoriented. His rendition, though not pixilated, was aptly hesitant, curious, and confused.

Later, after a film glimpse of Groucho Marx in At the Circus, Gets duets the iconic "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" with Feinstein (composer, Harold Arlen): "On her back is the battle of Waterloo/Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus too/And proudly above waves the red white and blue/You can learn a lot from Lydia." Gets and Feinstein play round robin at the piano, each moving in to replace the other, then shifting around the bench, having an infectiously rollicking good time.

Nancy Anderson (center in photo above) offered a rendition of "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?" (Finian's Rainbow), shimmering with vocal luster, just a small bit of attractive trill, and light Irish inflection. The sound was like a warm breeze in crystal wind chimes. In contrast, Anderson's "Down With Love" (composer, Harold Arlen) was full of rhythmic bite. The spirited performer flirted with the lyric (and us) looking back over her shoulder several times while musically winking. She was beguiling.

A robust, full cast finale of "The Begat" (Finian's Rainbow) preceded Feinstein's plumy "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Of course. The evening was beautifully put together with anecdotes, history, film clips, and Harburg's amusing poetry. Michael Feinstein's erudition weighs in with his meticulous treatment of The American Songbook and his suave and savory role as host.

Tedd Firth once again proved his astounding finesse on piano. Sean Smith on bass and Mark McLean on drums ably assisted with fine musicianship.

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From This Author - 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 ... (read more about this author)