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An '80s singer re-creating an era of classic pop songs. Feinstein wins large audiences with nostalgic style

What solo singer can fill a good-sized house - three times in two days - with cheering fans who demand encores? Springsteen? Pavarotti? Sure, but add a clear-voiced emissary from a different era entirely.

He's Michael Feinstein, and when he came to Boston's Berklee Performance Center earlier this month with his pre-Broadway show - which opens tonight in New York at the Lyceum - he proved once again he is today's spirit of the Gershwin age.

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Sitting at the piano in his trademark dinner jacket, and backed by an adroit instrumental sextet, this young pianist-singer ranged from tender to comic to rousing as he went through numbers from a classic period when American songwriters were craftsmen of the heart.

Why is his interpretation of the '30s and '40s - of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin and other standards from the great American song book - so true to the mark? It's because Mr. Feinstein's style seems hardly to be interpretation at all. It's easy to mistake an unblemished voice like his for lack of character. But actually it's a direct line to the composer's heart.

In fact, his attachment to those composers - especially Gershwin - draws on long and continuing study. He spent years, for instance, researching with George Gershwin's late brother, Ira, who wrote the lyrics for some of George's best-known songs. Since then, he's been winning fans at a blistering rate with appearances at places like the Hollywood Bowl, the White House, and network TV. He has a video out. His latest recording, ``Isn't It Romantic'' - just being released by Elektra on record and tape - features a 35-piece orchestra.

So it's not as if Feinstein is a stranger to the big sound. Yet his natural habitat seems an intimate setting. Once you see him at work there - as I have in the warmth of the Oak Room at New York's fabled Algonquin hotel - it's hard to think of Feinstein going for big effects. But that's what this show attempts. His Boston fans - and they weren't just middle-aged fugitives from rock - came in force to see the results. This was their music, and their man to sing their music.

How Feinstein managed to expand his cabaret-like style was a marvel to see and hear. The piano is the home base from which he ventures forth with hand-held mike, to sing from a stool or podium. Sometimes he stays on the piano bench but stops playing and leans forward to sing into a mike. The familiar effects are there, including the stirring crescendo in ``Alexander's Ragtime Band'' - streaked with Gershwin-like dissonances in the piano. At one point Feinstein even stood up and sang a comedy song by Rossini.

No, the stage business didn't always hang together. But sources from the show told me it would all be worked out by tonight's opening. And the occasional loose ends were trifles in a evening of jewel-like numbers: ``Fascinatin' Rhythm,'' ``I Can Dream, Can't I?'' ``I Love A Piano'' - the last in a slow-building finale that knocked your socks off. So did Feinstein's deft tribute to composer Harry Warren - that often overlooked a cornucopia of hits like ``Something Good'll Come of That'' and ``You're My Everything.''

And the cabaret quality is still there - in the sense of total control, in the sudden hushed tone dropped into the midst of a big buildup, in the jolly little asides he makes. He basks in the intensity and innocence and merriment of the times reflected in those songs. He winces gleefully at the puns. He can be assertive or dreamily lyric, but you always feel it's the song and not the man. He makes music transparent, radiant, and fun.

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Backstage afterward I asked Feinstein why a Broadway show?

``I have fantasized about doing a stage show of some sort for quite a time,'' he told me quietly, as admiring colleagues waited to greet him. ``So when [producer] Ron Delsener approached me and asked me if I would do it, I thought, `I've got an offer! I've got an offer!''' - he laughs - ``so that's the time to do it.''

On a personal level, Feinstein says, ``I look at everything, career-wise, as a logical progression. I've thought that everything will happen when it is supposed to happen, so I was just waiting for the right time for the stage show to occur.''

But once on stage, is it hard for him to maintain the charm and intimacy he's famous for?

``I use the same preparation,'' he explains. ``I do a meditation about connecting with the audience and with their hearts. The most important thing is creating a connection. If you can't do that, then it doesn't matter about the size of the room.''

Does the research he does about the great songwriters help his work?

``Oh, it does,'' Feinstein says. ``It's living history for me. When I research something, it adds to my understanding of the piece. So does having met the authors of many of these songs, especially Harry Warren, for whom I've wanted to do something for a long time. It all means much to me personally. So it's a very emotional experience for me.''

And for his audience.

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