South Florida’s traditional theater season starts earlier and earlier. This month, there are perhaps two dozen openings of plays and revues. Plus a half dozen shows already up and running. Therefore, there will likely be one and even two new reviews posted every day. If you don’t see the one you’re looking for at the top of the page, scroll down. Or click on the “Reviews” tab on the left end of the teal and white strip.
By Michelle F. Solomon
First, a bit of history to provide context to Broward Stage Door’s latest musical revue Tickling the Ivories. Encyclopedic musical knowledge says that the idea of dueling pianos, where two piano players play on grand pianos in a sort of “duel,” began in the 19th century when ragtime pianists would duel to see who could play faster.
My introduction to dueling pianos was at a bar in Orlando’s now defunct Downtown Disney. It was intriguing to watch as two, top-notch, contemporary piano players duked it out over familiar songs. And, so this leads to the inventive concept of Stage Door Theater and Kevin Black’s production of Tickling the Ivories, now playing in the smaller Theater 2 at the Margate theater.
Pianist Sarah Statler, on baby grand stage left, and Michael Friedman, on the second grand, stage right, open the show with a piano arrangement that weaves and bobs: From classic Mozart into ’80s band Journey into Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts cartoon theme song into rock ‘n roll’s Queen, John Lennon (Imagine), the classic Ludwig van Beethoven Fur Elise, and then some.
Right off the bat, it shows the artistry of the piano wizards and of the inventiveness of a show that turns the typical musical revue theme on its ear. Whereas song and dance is typically the main focus, here, song is a second fiddle to music. Black shows off how the piano in (most of the) tunes selected is the focal point, and the lyrics, i.e. the vocals, are there as the supporting player.
For a thoughtful music lover, the show will make you appreciate the talents of such modern piano royalty such as Billy Joel, Elton John, Carol King, Barry Manilow, and, the most contemporary, Lady Gaga.
The four singers have their work cut out for them. Sandra Marante, Devon A.A. Norris, Candace Shedd-Thompson and Ryan Stutz are tasked with a catalogue of more than two dozen songs, and a melange of a lot of different styles. Chief among them, however, is that they put the emphasis on the piano.
While Joel and John’s song really fit the mold — (yes, of course, there’s a segment for Piano Man), some of the selections that aren’t keys-specific are arranged as such. While Top 40 hits like Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and Kansas’s Come Sail Away aren’t really in the piano vernacular, in this catalogue, they fit.
Following the piano overture, the company comes together for a slow and steady Leon Russell/Elton John medley of A Song For You and Your Song. Both are smoothly presented, then there’s a straight up shot into John’s Bennie and the Jets, where Norris already shows that he’s going to be a standout, with his dramatic take on the Top 40 hit, and an arrangement by musical director Ben Bagby.
There are songs aplenty in these two hours and they span decades; some couldn’t be more perfectly suited, others from a critical standpoint don’t work so well. But there’s nothing so out of place that it detracts from the enjoyment of the evening.
Each of the performers have moments where they shine: Sandra Marante’s take on Alicia Key’s Fallin’ , which seamlessly segues into Nina Simone’s soulful ‘Feelin’ Good is definitely a highlight of Act II. Norris’s dramatic interpretation of the Joel and John medley, which starts out with New York State of Mind, moves into She’s Always A Woman, then rocks with Movin’ Out, and winds up with Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me. The breadth of Carole King’s songwriting skills is led by Candace Shedd-Thompson’s opener of One Fine Day, with female power kicking in with pianist Sarah singing and playing Beautiful, then Sandra rounding it out with Natural Woman.
Ryan Stutz must have had a former career as a frontman in a rock band, because he shows his muster on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin.’ Shedd-Thompson’s version of female rocker Heart’s Alone shows her range.
When it comes time for the pianists to step out of their accompaniment roles and take the limelight, Statler and Friedman show they aren’t merely the backbeat. Statler blows the roof off the theater with her rendition of the Lady Gaga medley, Edge of Glory, You and I, and A Million Reasons, while Friedman is Joel’s mini-me in the dramatic Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.
Shining with musical support in the rear of the stage are the enthusiastic duo Rupert Ziawiski on bass and Roy Fantel on percussion.
Black, a director and choreographer, has a production company that creates entertainment for cruise ships, and Tickling would be a perfect fit for an on-the-sea show aboard Royal Caribbean. The simple production doesn’t require much of a set, although Michael McClain’s multi-tiered stage at Stage Door allows for some limited choreographed moments where singers get their solo time in the spotlight, and where there’s plenty of space for the foursome to interact with the two pianists.
There’s room for this world premiere to grow, but Tickling the Ivories is nothing short of sheer pleasure. It accomplishes its entertainment goal. Audiences are invited to sit back, relax and listen to some wonderful songs given interpretation by talented performers.
Tickling the Ivories” runs through Nov. 19 at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate. Running time is two hours with a 15 minute intermission. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets are $48. 954-344-7765 or go to www.stagedoorfl.org.