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Review: MSMT's PIANO MEN Offers a Thrilling Hit Parade of Billy Joel and Elton John Classics

MSMT's PIANO MEN Offers a Thrilling Hit Parade of Billy Joel and Elton John Classics

Review: MSMT's PIANO MEN Offers a Thrilling Hit Parade of Billy Joel and Elton John Classics

In its first season after the pandemic, MSMT has offered many noteworthy moments of memory, but perhaps few as thrilling as this tribute concert to two of the greatest names in popular music of the late 20th century: Billy Joel and Elton John. In a spectacular musical evening that focuses largely on the seminal recordings made by these two legends in the 1970s, PIANO MEN celebrates two artists born on opposite sides of the Pond, whose albums from that period featured not only classic rock arrangements, but also lush, full-scale orchestrations. MSMT conjures up the ambiance with Joe Boucher's dazzling four- piece rock band partnered by the breathtakingly grand twenty-piece MSMT orchestra under the impressive baton of Ben McNaboe.

Biddeford-born Boucher electrifies the audience with his brilliant pianistic technique and the power, drive, and emotional appeal of his vocals. On bass guitar, Christopher Eastburn, who has created the excellent arrangements, and Gary Backstrom on lead guitar supply the perfectly harmonized backup vocals with animated support by Steve Hodgkin on drums. McNaboe presents a commanding and animated presence on the podium, conducting the MSMT Orchestra with élan, elegance, and stylistic surety, and the twenty musicians play with technical skill and emotional investment to create an opulent soundscape.

The program opens with Billy Joel's "Prelude/Angry Young Man" followed by Elton John's "Your Song" and alternates between the two composers, serving up an evening of unforgettable musical winners. Each of the nineteen numbers is a gem, so any mention of highlights is a personal choice. For this critic standouts included Joel's gritty "Allentown," his propulsive "Pressure" and the haunting "New York State of Mind" with its longing saxophone interludes, as well as John's melancholy "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word" with its expansive orchestral passages, the lively duet "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" sung by Boucher and Maggie McCowan, and the rollicking finale "Crocodile Rock." After a standing ovation, the musicians returned with two encores:

a tug-at-the-heartstrings cover of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind, followed by a bring-the-house-down rendition of Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

The musical fireworks are attractively framed in a visual production that includes a stage filled with musicians and musical instruments over which are suspended three glittery signs identifying the show and its creators, a cyc that serves to project the highly charged - colorful lighting design and swirling projections, and an extremely well-balanced sound design that blends the rock sound with the orchestral one and the vocals with perfect precision.

MSMT has been filling its precious month in the Pickard Theater (before the company moves to Westbrook for September/October 2021) with a veritable feast of diverse musical theatre experiences. The range of repertoire the company has offered has been inspiring, just as the talent and productions have been stunning. To experience the sheer musical splendor of PIANO MEN in a completely sold-out house brought an added frisson of happiness and gratitude. Music such as this concert, and all those that have graced the MSMT stage this summer, bring happiness to the heart and healing to the soul! As Joe Boucher said, as he gratefully addressed the standing audience, thanking them for their support: "This theatre is a gem, so come back and see everything they do."

Photograph courtesy MSMT, Jeff Swanson, photographer

PIANO MEN runs for 5 performances from August 14-16 at the Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Road, Brunswick, ME Performances are sold out, but the box office (207-725-8769) is maintaining a waitlist.

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