Michael Feinstein to perform with Sheryl Lee Ralph

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Legendary singer/pianist Michael Feinstein has been entertaining audiences with his interpretation of the classics for more than 50 years.

During a phone conversation with the iconic performer who was in Naples, Florida preparing for a performance in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day, he talked about his upcoming show in Los Angeles.

 For one night only as part of his Center Theatre Group residency, Feinstein’s at the Taper returns on Feb. 17 with “Michael Feinstein in Lovers and Strangers.” He will be joined by special guest artist Sheryl Lee Ralph the star of “Abbott Elementary”.

Feinstein is writing a love letter to the Mark Taper Forum with a Valentine-themed show for all the lovebirds and hopeless romantics.

Ralph, an Emmy, Independent Spirit and Critics Choice Award winner, and Tony, Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award nominee, joins Feinstein for a special collaboration and evening of song.

Although he knows her socially, Feinstein said this will be the first time he will be singing with Ralph. The two have “done a lot of advanced preparation,” but will only meet the day before the show for rehearsals.

“She will do solo numbers and we’ll do one duet,” Feinstein said. “We’ll do, ‘Love Is Here to Stay.’ I’m thrilled to have this collaboration. We both have talked about doing something together for a while. To me she is iconic. I first saw her in the original production of ‘Dreamgirls.’ I’ve been a fan all these years.”

Feinstein called Ralph “an incredible talent and a warm human being.”

“Being able to connect with her spirit and energy is special,” he said. “Let’s uplift in any way we can. She exudes positive energy. She’s a positive light. I have tremendous respect and admiration for her. Sheryl Lee Ralph has dazzled audiences with her Tony Award-nominated performances on stage, she’s thrilled audiences around the globe with majestic interpretations of songs that we build our memories upon and I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the stage with her.”

Feinstein, who considers Los Angeles a “great city” in which to perform, is happy to talk about his music career.

DD: How long have you been in showbiz?

MF: Since 2000 B.C.   I started playing piano at the age of 5, which was 62 years ago. Somewhere in my teens, I was asked to play for a wedding. Somebody paid me $25 to play. At the time, it was the most incredible thing to happen to me.

DD: Then what happened?

MF: I was hired to play at the Mondrian Hotel in 1984. That’s when it changed. During that same period, I was playing Christmas parties and I met Liza Minnelli. She said from now on, we’re joined at the hip. She started coming every night to hear me play. She brought friends. In February 1985, she threw a party to introduce me. There were people there like Gregory Peck, Henry Mancini, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins. I was then playing for a group of Mount Rushmore faces. Liza got me my first national publicity. I appeared on Merv Griffin.

DD: Describe the kind of career you’ve had.

MF: Perplexing. A miracle. I was able to make a career playing the music I love without compromising what’s in my heart. So, it’s been a fantastic career. I am still in the game. People still want to hear the music and hear me.

DD: What drew you to this music?

MF: It was a visceral, emotional response to the harmonies of those classic songs. The harmonies and the clever lyrics appealed to me more than pop. At an early age, this music captivated me. I can’t intellectually explain it.

DD: Finish this sentence. A great show is one that … ?

MF: Uplifts and entertains the audience.

DD: Can you go to a concert and just be a fan or are you always working in some capacity?

MF: Depends on what the music is. It’s easy to go to a symphony concert and relax and enjoy the power and energy of the music. If I hear someone singing songs, I sing. There will be estimations of how the songs are sung or how the lyrics are performed. It starts to feel like work. The analytical part doesn’t shut down.

DD: Is someone with your talent born or taught?

MF: It’s a combination. I was definitely born with a musical aptitude. I was playing piano by ear at the age of 5. I believe in reincarnation. I came into this life with the memory. The soul memory is from other experiences where I had musical ability. Education can unlock something buried.

DD: Have you ever done a session to find out who you were in your past life?

MF: I did that once with a therapist to release emotional trauma that might have been carried forward. I was past life regression. It was very powerful. It felt oddly natural. Felt like I was watching a movie. It was resonant and fascinating and gave me a sense of calm.

DD: When did your Center Theatre Group residency begin and what is your relationship with the Center Theatre Group?

MF: It started late last year. The first program was a Christmas program. I have a beautiful history with CTG. For almost 20 years, I hosted their annual fundraising gala at the Taper — in tribute to different songwriters. I’ve always admired CTG for their innovation in what they brought to L.A. How they’ve always pushed the envelope and created new works. They found the perfect balance to giving people what they want.

DD: Why is this called “Music for Lovers and Strangers?”

MF: We always meet as strangers. Then we learn about each other’s lives and become closer and sometimes become lovers. Love is an evolution.

DD: You are writing a love letter to the Mark Taper Forum with a Valentine-theme. What do you have to say to the Taper?

MF: It’s a thank you for the opportunity to play in the Taper. It’s a perfect place to make music. It has an intimacy and connection. Every seat is great.

DD: Do you love love?

MF: Yes. I always look for love in every corner. I find it constantly. Love is a force of the universe. You can find love in a flower, art, a smile, holding an animal.

DD: Talk about what the audience will hear.

MF: A loving and thoughtfully curated collection of songs to celebrate the many permutations of romance and love.

DD: What song automatically gets you in the mood, and why?

MF: They all do.

DD: What is the Great American Songbook and who decides what goes into the Great American Songbook?

MF: I don’t decide. It’s a collection of music and songs that have endured because people have kept them popular. The songs transcend the time they’re written. It has universal appeal.

DD: You co-wrote the CD “We Dreamed These Days” with Maya Angelou.

MF: She was a close friend. I met her through a mutual friend. I used to visit and stay with her and have Thanksgiving and Christmas. We just connected. She was among many things, a fan of music. She loved the standards.

DD: What does music do for you?

MF: It reminds me of the divine. It connects me to the divine as I hope it does to the listener when I’m performing. It reminds me there is more to the world than three dimensions.

Michael Feinstein performs in “Music for Lovers and Strangers” at 8 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., 213 972- 4400.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.