Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: PIANO MEN Brings the Piano Bar to the Milwaukee Rep Cabaret

A night of electric, audience-fueled entertainment.

Review: PIANO MEN Brings the Piano Bar to the Milwaukee Rep Cabaret

A 90-minute confection. That's what Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements lovingly calls his Piano Men creation, now on stage in the Stackner Cabaret. The show is fully request-driven and unplanned -- part music revue, part piano bar. Not sure if piano bars are your thing? Trust the experience. It's loads of fun.

When you arrive at your seat, you'll find a slip of paper that awaits your song requests. Jot them down, pass them off, and the man behind the curtain will facilitate sending those songs into the talented hands of our two piano men, Steve Watts and Nygel D. Robinson (to be replaced by Colte Julian beginning February 8th). They sit at pianos opposite each other, bringing their own unique energy from the onset.

Watts and Robinson immediately get the cabaret groovin'. Just what we need on a frigid Wisconsin night. It seems, aside from the opening and closing numbers, Piano Men really is otherwise request-based and therefore different every night. On opening night, Watts summed it up: "It's not so much a concert as it is a party. You have to participate or it falls flat."

Participate. Clap. Sing. Holler! Masks are currently required at all Milwaukee Rep performances, but perhaps that will give the shy the courage to really sing along. It's easier to belt when you're in disguise. Some may even harmonize (let's hope they know how!).

The opening night setlist included a mix of classics from the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John, and Carly Simon. More-contemporary picks like "A Whole New World" and CeeLo Green's "F*ck You" shook up the vibe and showed that these piano men aren't afraid to go there.

Four audience members allegedly requested "American Pie," so the clever Watts treated us to a super-fast rendition to, well, get it over with. He's an electric performer -- an instigator, egging on the crowd. But in a quiet, reflective turn, Watts honored an audience request for some Simon & Garfunkel, playing "America" in memory of a late great friend of his. So in short, if you think Piano Men isn't here to surprise-tug at your heartstrings, think again. Anything can happen when the show is unscripted.

Watts acknowledged at various points in the show that Robinson represents the younger generation. Evidence of this lies in Robinson's major musical influence, John Legend. If you'd like an extra-special treat, put in a request for Mr. Legend and let Robinson go to work. Between his rendition of "Ordinary People" and John Lennon's "Imagine," this soulful piano man pours out his heart and leaves it all on stage. In these moments, the audience seemed to know to listen only. Thank goodness for that.

When you leave Piano Men, you will likely find yourself wishing you could see what else Watts and Robinson, and eventually Julian, can do. What songs will they play on other nights? At which performance will they most-jive with the song requests? Genuine questions from a fan who wishes she could pop back to the cabaret just to see what Piano Men cooks up in the coming weeks. If it's anything like opening night, audiences are in for a treat.

Piano Men is on stage now through February 27th.

Skylight Music Theatre Announces Summer Education Programs for Young Theatre Artists Photo
Skylight Music Theatre has announced its 2023 summer education programming for youth in 4th-12th grades interested in performance, technical theatre, and creative writing.

August Wilsons SEVEN GUITARS to Open at Milwaukee Repertory Theater in March Photo
Milwaukee Repertory Theater will present August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, March 7 – April 2, 2023, in the Quadracci Powerhouse.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Comes to Marcus Performing Arts Center Photo
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis will be presenting Middle East Meditations with internationally-renowned Iraqi oud musician, Naseer Shamma, one night only at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. Part of the 2022/23 MPAC Presents: Jazz Series, the performance will take place February 2 at 7:30pm.

Noble Catering to Operate Broadway Theatre Centers Skylight Bar & Bistro Photo
Skylight Music Theatre has announced that Noble Catering will operate the Skylight Bar & Bistro, located on the 2nd floor of the Broadway Theatre Center.

From This Author - Kelsey Lawler

  Kelsey Lawler is a copywriter by day and zealot for local theater by night. She earned her BA in Writing Intensive English from Marquette University in 2009, and has been working as an edito... (read more about this author)

Review: CARMELA FULL OF WISHES Charms Little Ones at First StageReview: CARMELA FULL OF WISHES Charms Little Ones at First Stage
January 23, 2023

Many show highlights come from props and staging choices. From a field of orange flowers dancing around Carmela to conversations with her fuzzy dandelion to a flurry of bubbles representing hundreds wishes, these moments of stage magic are just that: magical.

Review: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a 'Merry War' from Start to Finish at the MILWAUKEE REPReview: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a 'Merry War' from Start to Finish at the MILWAUKEE REP
January 17, 2023

Love and laughter are just what a Wisconsin winter needs, and just what the Milwaukee Rep is serving. They have something insanely special with this updated adaptation of a Shakespearean rom-com classic. For me, this is a Rep season favorite that will be tough to top. 

Review: MY FAIR LADY Charms Fans at the MARCUS CENTERReview: MY FAIR LADY Charms Fans at the MARCUS CENTER
January 4, 2023

What did our critic think of MY FAIR LADY at MARCUS CENTER? There's a loverly bit of old-school musical theater at Milwaukee's Marcus Center this week. My Fair Lady returns, and fans of the original show and film starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison will no doubt adore this production. There's something comforting about a classic Broadway show delivering on its tried and true promises. For My Fair Lady, it's strong vocals, captivating characters, sumptuous costumes, richly-designed sets, a toe-tapper here, a chuckle there. All are present in this touring Lincoln Center Theater Production, directed by Bartlett Sher.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Remains a Gift to be Treasured at the MILWAUKEE REPReview: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Remains a Gift to be Treasured at the MILWAUKEE REP
December 5, 2022

What did our critic think of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at MILWAUKEE REPERTORY THEATER? For almost 50 years, the Milwaukee Rep's A Christmas Carol has been a beloved holiday tradition in Milwaukee. Freshly adapted by Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements in 2016, the eye-popping spectacle delivers holiday magic and festive feelings to melt even the iciest of hearts. But there's a repetitive risk in tradition -- the inherent potential of sameness and boredom with doing the same thing year after year. Can a show, even one as impressive as A Christmas Carol, keep the flame alive?

Review: LES MISERABLES Stuns Once More at the Marcus CenterReview: LES MISERABLES Stuns Once More at the Marcus Center
December 1, 2022

Seen by 130 million people in 53 countries and 22 languages, 'Les Miserables' stands the test of time and jukebox musical trends. Magnificent performances, dazzling sets and staging, soaring orchestrations -- these make the show timeless, breathtaking, and powerful as ever.