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Review: Familiar tunes pack 'Tickling the Ivories' at Stage Door

Correspondent

If you’re someone who loves a piano, you’ll have double the pleasure if you decide to see “Tickling the Ivories,” the Kevin Black revue that’s now getting its world premiere at Stage Door Theatre in Margate.

This made-from-scratch show features a pair of pianists, Sarah Statler and Michael Friedman, who sometimes chime in on vocals and even take a couple of solo turns. Along with percussionist Roy Fantel and bassist Rupert Ziawinski, Statler and Friedman provide the sometimes fast-and-furious accompaniment to an eclectic collection of songs performed by vocalists Sandra Marante, Devon A.A. Norris, Candice Shedd-Thompson and Ryan Stutz.

A hybrid of concert and show, “Tickling the Ivories” has no narrative glue. Its organizing principle seems to be this: Here are a bunch of songs, many made famous by singer-songwriters also known as pianists, that will pluck Baby Boomers’ nostalgic heartstrings.

With musical arrangements by the two pianists, Black and musical director-vocal arranger Ben Bagby, “Tickling the Ivories” makes room for everything from “Ode to Joy” (sung impeccably in German) to songs made famous by Lady Gaga, Adele, Carole King, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Billy Joel – well, the list is a long one.

Michael McClain’s set, with its stairs and platforms and placement of the two pianos on either side of a small central staircase, features filmy curtains that pick up Ardean Landhuis’ mood-setting pastel lighting design. Jerry Sturdefant supplies the many costumes that provide visual variety in a show that runs under two hours. It’s a setup – and show – that would fit just as easily on a cruise ship as it does in Stage Door’s smaller theater.

Each of the four singers has powerhouse pipes just made for killer solos, but Bagby also helps the quartet (or sextet, when the pianists join in) achieve an appealing blend.

The highlights for Marante include King’s “Natural Woman” and a mashup of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” and “Feeling Good,” as well as her beautiful operatic start to “Ode to Joy.” Shedd-Thompson performs vintage King-Gerry Goffin with “One Fine Day” and rocks out on Heart’s “Alone.” Stutz finds the bombast in Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and roars on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Norris easily juggles Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind,” “She’s Always a Woman to Me”), Elton John (“Bennie and the Jets,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and Burt Bacharach-Hal David (“Always Something There to Remind Me”).

Besides being a talented pianist, Statler has a degree in voice and is a compelling singer, as she demonstrates with a medley of songs made famous by Lady Gaga. Friedman, the show’s assistant musical director, gets his solo turn on Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” He can sing, but his voice isn’t on the level of Statler’s or the revue’s vocalists.

As with nearly all new works, “Tickling the Ivories” could use some fine-tuning. The inclusion of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s stirring “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a little puzzling – it’s not a song particularly identified with the piano – and the harmonies sound off. At times, the sound balance isn’t right, as the percussion overwhelms the singers (not easy, since those four can belt).

Still, if what you’re after when you buy a ticket to a musical revue is a couple of hours of familiar tunes sung well, “Tickling the Ivories” may just tickle your fancy.

“Tickling the Ivories” runs through Nov. 19 at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $48. To order, call 954-344-7765 or go to www.stagedoorfl.org.

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