With help from an extraordinary guest soloist, Maestro Bob Lappin and the Palm Beach Pops opened the final program series of their 19th season with a bang Monday night at the Kravis Center.
Special guest Michael Cavanaugh, the original star of the Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp musical Movin’ Out, was on hand with a stellar five-piece band to salute the music of the Piano Man — and when they finally hit the stage in the second act they did not disappoint.
Although the first half was much too long — considering the caliber of the guest scheduled to appear — it was not without merit. A sweet arrangement of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s Time After Time made amends for the clunky and forgettable Lionel Ritchie medley that opened the evening.
Making a reference to three generations of piano players on the bill, Lappin then introduced Mark Mayea, a local piano sensation who is a junior at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts.
The young protege wowed the audience with a flawless reading of Claude Debussy’s L´Isle Joyeuse (Island of Joy). Mayea was taken under the wing of Lappin and the Pops a number of years ago, and the career guidance — along with the donation of a better instrument with which to learn his craft — have paid off.
An opportunity was lost when the Pops proceeded with two more selections instead of bringing out the “middle generation” representative, Cavanaugh, for a solo. His beautiful arrangement of Joel’s She’s Got a Way, which adds an emotional string element not heard in the original, would have been a perfect fit for this ivory hat trick, as well as a nice preview of what was to come.
That being said, the ensuing up-tempo reading of Benny Goodman’s Avalon allowed for enjoyable solos from Randy Emerick on bass sax, trumpeter Steve Ahern and trombonist Dante Luciani under the masterful foundation laid down by the trio, with Lappin, Ranses Colon on bass and drummer Frank Derrick leading the way.
After nearly an hour, plus intermission, it was time for the second act and the featured guests.
The rags-to-riches story of Cavanaugh’s rise to fame is the stuff of Broadway legend.
Playing in an Orlando piano bar, he was called up to the big show at the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas.
One night in 2001, a mutual friend arranged for Joel to see him perform, and by the end of the night the young Jedi was trading licks on Beatles and Elvis tunes with the master — who just happened to be putting together a musical based on his songs at the time. From that first impression, Cavanaugh was hand-picked by the composer to play the lead in that show, which called for, conveniently enough, someone who could sing, play piano and re-create the Joel catalogue note for note.
For his performance in Movin’ Out (three years on Broadway and 1,200 shows), Cavanaugh was nominated for a Tony and a Grammy. In recent years, he has toured extensively with orchestral shows based on the music of Joel and Elton John to rave reviews, the Monday night Kravis show being no exception.
Full, powerful sound
From the moment he took to the piano with the riveting open from Prelude/Angry Young Man, Cavanaugh took control of the bus and drove it for the rest of the evening, with the orchestra and audience happily in tow. While he and his band of Grade A players were clearly in charge, a nice balance was struck between the two groups by the tasteful use of the various orchestra sections to create a full, powerful sound that suited the emotion and drama of the material.
Launching headfirst into the two songs that served as the framework for Movin’ Out — the title song and Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, both from Joel’s breakout smash LP The Stranger — Cavanaugh and company immediately hit their stride, and the hits just kept coming.
A stirring take of the anthem New York State of Mind gave way to up-tempo numbers such as River of Dreams and Uptown Girl, which had many in the audience clapping along and dancing in their seats. Cavanaugh got the crowd involved on sing-alongs such as My Life and the obligatory Piano Man. The performers from the combined group held the audience captivated for more than an hour, with no one even considering an early exit.
The booking of an artist of Cavanaugh’s stature is a fitting choice to close a season that offered numerous excellent guests, each bringing something unique.
The momentum from these successes — not the least of which being this powerful closing series — should help the organization as it looks ahead to its 20th season later this year.