THE PIANO MEN – Chicago Tribune Review



If you had to name all the tunesmiths and crooners who have delivered their art from behind 88 keys, you could go on for days. Ray Charles and Hoagy Carmichael, Elton John and Bobby Short, Jerry Lee Lewis and Stevie Wonder — the list never ends, the stylistic range knows no borders. Which is why singer-pianist Beckie Menzie and vocalist Tom Michael, one of Chicago’s most engaging cabaret acts, decided to focus on three standout artists in their attractive new show, “The Piano Men” (playing Davenport’s through April). Barry Manilow, Michael Feinstein and Billy Joel each represent a distinct stream of classic American songwriting, yet their similarities prove far greater than their differences.


That much was evident Saturday night, when Menzie and Michael launched their show with a wide array of tunes, from the Golden Age repertoire that Feinstein champions to the sweeping ballads that made Manilow a star to the buoyant pop fare that has flowed from Joel’s pen. When stacked up alongside each other, the work of these three performers shows its roots in Tin Pan Alley traditions. And though not all the evening’s repertoire compares favorably with the work of early masters such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington and their peers (admittedly an exalted standard), Menzie and Michael very nearly make you believe it does.


For the best song interpreters tend to find new meanings in old tunes, illuminating subtext through insights in tempo, tone and timing. Menzie and Michael, who have been performing together for a remarkable 27 years, probably could find intriguing ways of singing the phone book (if those are still published). In “The Piano Men,” they have focused on a diverting, occasionally profound source of material.


At first glance, Feinstein might seem the odd man out here, for even though he has penned an occasional tune, he’s best known as an advocate for the Great American Songbook. Menzie and Michael salute him in fitting fashion, delivering ardent versions of music by Feinstein’s heroes, specifically Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. Here Menzie and Michael appropriately play it straight, delivering earnest and forthright versions of lesser known fare, such as the Gershwins’ “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” and Berlin’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” In their no-nonsense delivery, the artists tip their hats to Feinstein’s lifelong efforts to allow these songs to speak for themselves, undiluted and unencumbered by passing pop fads.


But Menzie also has dug up a song penned for Feinstein by David Zippel and Jonathan Sheffer, “Me and My Baby Grand,” a lightly comic tune that could serve as any piano man’s (or woman’s) lament. Menzie delivers it sweetly from the keyboard, gently bemoaning the fact that no one seems to want a belter without a piano. It can’t be fun to be upstaged by all that glorious ebony and ivory.


Michael, whose voice continues to gain depth and luster with the passage of time, proved particularly effective in the tunes that Manilow made into hits. The swooping phrases and perpetually swelling climaxes that are Manilow hallmarks certainly fit hand-in-glove with Michael’s aesthetic, as he showed in a soaring “Weekend in New England” (which occasionally offered a bit too much vibrato). There was a bit of satire here, too, in the form of Ray Stevens’ “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow,” an affectionate spoof of the songwriter’s more sugary tendencies.


The music of Billy Joel brought out the best in Menzie and Michael as a duo, perhaps because the emotional exuberance of Joel’s work hardly can be contained by a single performer. Michael’s bluesy phrases and colloquial cadences in “New York State of Mind” found ebullient accompaniment in Menzie’s honky-tonk virtuosity, two musicians sounding like much more than the sum of their parts. And in a comedic touch that fell just this side of corn, Michael unveiled a toy piano atop Menzie’s grand, whimsically duetting with her on Joel’s “Root Beer Rag.”


Even after all these years, one has to marvel at what Menzie can do at a piano. When she delved into Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic,” she spun keyboard rhapsodies on the Chopin prelude that originally inspired the song, complete with a quasi-fugal baroque piano solo. All the while, she sang intensely, stretching phrases nearly to the breaking point.


That Menzie and Michael have flourished as a duo for nearly three decades will come as a surprise to no one who has seen them perform, their chemistry as apparent in their freewheeling patter as in their carefully controlled music-making. When it comes to talking, in other words, each is intent on one-upping the other, to oft-humorous effect. When it gets down to singing, they blend and dovetail phrases as only two longtime partners could (with periodic support from Irwin Berkowitz on drums).


In the end, Menzie and Michael have crafted a congenial new vehicle in “The Piano Men,” and they’ll likely be taking this show far and wide.


Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.