‘Piano Men’: tickling the ivories at FST’s Cabaret

By Wayne Barcomb

Settling into the intimate warmth of Florida Studio Theatre’s
Cabaret, sipping a glass of wine while waiting for the show
to begin, is one of Sarasota’s many pleasures. When the show
is a delight (as it often is), all the better. The Cabaret’s
current production, “Piano Men” lands squarely on the
side of delightful.

Each sitting behind a piano facing one another from opposite
ends of the stage, David Abeles and Scott J. Pearson display
a range of musical talent far beyond their years
(26 and 25, respectively). During the course of the evening,
they glide through a medley of songs from some of our
 greatest artists.

If you are a fan of any of the 13 song writers and performers,
which include Billy Joel, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Ray Charles
and Little Richard (well, you get the picture), you are going to love
this show, which is scheduled to run through March 26.

An added treat to “Piano Men” is the presence of Jannie Jones, who was so impressive playing Ethel Waters in FST’s “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” In the first act, Jones slithers seductively about the stage, playing the Muse, representing happiness and pain, at times flirting with the piano players and occasionally singing.

One’s first impression of Jones’ role is that her enormous talent was wasted, being placed in what at times was little more than an awkward distraction. Not to worry. In the second act director Dennis Courtney turns her loose, and if she doesn’t dominate the stage (hard to do sharing it with Abeles and Pearson), she does indeed light it up with her powerful voice and personality.

And speaking of voices, both Abeles and Pearson display an engaging style, particularly Pearson, who effortlessly glides through several different ranges on songs such as Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and “She’s Always a Woman,” and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” David Abeles’ renditions of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” and Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” provide a change of pace, but his return to Billy Joel, with his “She’s Got a Way,” casts a haunting whiff of romance across the room. The two combine on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire, tearing into this rollicking number by hopping up and standing on their respective piano stools a la The Killer.

The show was eight months in planning – the longest of any of FST’s Cabaret productions. Watching Abeles and Pearson blend so seamlessly, it’s hard to believe they had never worked together before.

Back to Jannie Jones: An intriguing part of the show is watching her segue from being little more than a prop through much of the first act to leading the show’s rousing closing number, Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All.”

Michael Sebastian, FST’s music director, is a constant presence, sitting in a corner of the stage. Behind his synthesizer, occasionally adding his talent to the proceedings, he appears to be enjoying the show as much as anyone.
Scott J. Pearson displays a range of musical talent far beyond his years in “Piano Men.”
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