Joel tribute not among the best

Aussie singer-pianist Steven Michael backed by local musicians in a scene from Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show, at Sibaya Casino’s  iZulu Theatre until April 28.

Stage: Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show – iZulu Theatre, Sibaya Casino, near Umhlanga

I FAIL to understand why Sibaya Casino continually sidesteps excellent local production teams and talent to import routinely formulaic tribute shows from Australia which are usually billed as ‘close-to-the-real-thing’ blockbusters but, with few exceptions over the years, have fallen far short.

By far the best of the lot, its formulaic concept notwithstanding, was Showtime Australia’s touring Whitney Houston tribute show, The Greatest Love of All, thanks mainly to the charisma and power vocals of its star, Port Elizabeth-born Belinda Davids.

Sorry to say it, but the eagerly awaited Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show, while it does make use of six competent local musicians to support its Aussie star, singer-pianist Steven Michael, is not in the same league.

Going on what we saw at Thursday night’s opening performance, it is a mediocre show with a tired, lazy concept – little more than a simple plonking of musicians on stage to plough through the hits.

There was virtually zero patter. No scripted dialogue of any kind. Zilch by way of audience rapport. Not even the flash of assorted video images on a large, suspended screen, colourful lighting and a rather good saxophonist and fun female percussionist could save opening night from being a big disappointment. For me, anyway.

Bald and grey-bearded Michael, about whom the audience knows and is told nothing, was in poor form, arriving on stage in a dark suit, with a half-hearted wave, to sit at, and never leave, a white baby grand. (Pity the poor folk seated on the extreme right of the auditorium as all they’d see of Michael  all night would be the back of his head).

Aussie Steven Michael, star of Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show.

It was almost as if the 48-year-old couldn’t wait to get the show over with, simply hammering away with only the odd casual word here and there; and offering only one, late-coming and brief, sentence about Joel’s music.

It was only a third of the way into the second half of the show that Michael finally explained that the very poor vocals we had been subjected to all night were due to his having been in increasingly poor health for a few days, adding that he had decided to push through anyway.

Had we been given this info before or at the start of the show, he might have been forgiven. But by then, after endless croak and strain, botched notes, missed notes and careless whispers, it was way too late.

In his favour, Michael’s piano playing was very good when one could hear it through over-amplified percussion that tended to dominate a sometimes tinny, often shoddy sound mix. Let’s hope that has been sorted out by now!

The first three songs of the show’s second half were particularly awful on opening night – a botched start to Say Goodbye to Hollywood leading to a restart that led to a highly forgettable performance of the song, followed by equally sad versions of I Go to Extremes and Allentown.

It was only around this late point in the show that Michael opted to mention his feeling poorly, marking the most he had spoken to the audience all evening.

The production features all the big Joel gems – but, curiously, not the classic Honesty, which was a shout-out audience request on opening night.

It must be recorded that, even with all its wobbles, the show made some in the audience happy on opening night, even moving them to stand and clap along at their seats during the rendition of Uptown Girl.

Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show can only improve tenfold with Michael in better voice, so here’s hoping he quickly returns to health for the rest of the run, which ends on April 28. Tickets cost R250 each and booking is at Computicket.

Most of the Billy Joel hits feature in Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show, at Sibaya Casino’s  iZulu Theatre.

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