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

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A night of electric, audience-fueled entertainment.

BWW 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.


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