BY SANDY STAGGS
As performer Javy Pagan says in the opening of Centre Stage’s wildly-popular music show, “Rockin’ the Keys” is no “drama, comedy, farce or even musical theatre,” but a two-hour journey through some of the biggest hits of the rock era.
And what distinguishes this set list of some three dozen songs is, as the title suggests, its emphasis on tickling the ivories. Well, tickling the keyboards in this instance. There are four keyboards stationed around this modern two-story set (designed by Director Rick Connor) bound by metal lighting towers and rows of 6-foot “ivory” keys suspended around the stage.
This year’s cast of gifted performers tackles iconic piano-driven compositions from singer/songwriter titans such as Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Carole King and Carly Simon and a smashing lineup of edgier rock from the likes of Journey (three numbers!), Toto and Jefferson Starship.
Mary Evan Giles (star of Greenville Little Theatre’s “Hairspray” last season) has quickly become one of Greenville’s top vocalists and returns to Centre Stage for her third consecutive rock show appearance. A true quadruple threat, Giles plays harmonica and acoustic guitar in this show and nails an invigorating cover of Heart’s power ballad “What About Love,” as well as one of her idol’s signature numbers, “I Feel the Earth Move” by Carole King.
Pagan, who by day also serves as the theatre’s Development/Marketing Director, dazzles in a sultry rendition of one of George Michael’s more obscure covers, “Feeling Good,” which has a saucy burlesque/James Bond vibe, in addition to an exquisite styling of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.”
Joshua Thomason (star of “Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical” and more recently the villain Carl Bruner in “Ghost: The Musical”) is an incredible, dexterous performer and crooner, and is equally effective on the keyboard in songs like the 1970s classic “Rocket Man.”
Morgan Voke-Thomason (the nun Sister Mary Robert in “Sister Act”) leads the cast in Journey’s “Separate Ways” and solos majestically on Bonnie Raitt’s forlorn testament to unrequited romance, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
Melissa McKim Murphy (who audiences will recall as the darling Maxine in the Andrews Sisters musical “Sisters of Swing”) adds an extra layer of bitterness in her up-tempo interpretation of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and presents a mellifluous rendition of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition “Tiny Dancer.”
After a couple of classics by trailblazing piano virtuous such as Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”) and Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”), the charming Michael Ciaccia, who returns for his first appearance at Centre Stage since 2015’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” steers the show into 1980s doo-wop with Billy Joel’s ode to Christie Brinkley, “Uptown Girl,” with the lads backing harmonies and re-creating the iconic moves from the video. And in a nod to the #MeToo movement, he is eloquent and emotion-inducing in the most contemporary number in the show, Lady Gaga’s Oscar-nominated “Million Reasons.”
In addition, to jamming in Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” with the ladies, Rebecca René Kelley, who somehow managed to act in “Happy Christmas Shirley” during rehearsals for this show, feels like a “Natural Woman” in another Carole King classic.
But the surprise of the evening was the debut of Andrew Poston, a senior at Anderson University who has an incredibly bright future ahead. Not only does he prove he’s ready for “Jersey Boys University” by singing Frank Valli’s falsetto on The Four Season’s “Sherry,” but this award-winning vocalist plays keyboard, and turns it perhaps the most beautiful number in the show in Alicia Keyes’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” Bravo, Mr. Poston!
Music Director Chase McAbee jumpstarts the second half and takes center stage on the Roland with an ecstatically energetic and high-octane instrumental with the band on Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk.”
And the full gang closes out with a heartfelt tribute to an artist we lost just a couple of years ago that is guaranteed to get the audience swaying and those lighters aflame… or at least the modern-day cellphone lights aglow.
Director Connor has been painstakingly working on this dynamic set list since last July and the result is … explosive. A formidable musician himself, Connor has chosen a well-balanced array of selections that focus on the singer/songwriters of three generations. He uses the stage pragmatically and adventurously with his performers, and has created a bountiful and charged show that hits all the right notes with emotional arcs that surge up and down with precision. And, I must say I was most impressed by his inclusion of Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” which the band, led by the spirited bassist and the show’s music arranger Greg Day, performed magnificently.
Rounding out this fine band are many familiar faces in the Upstate theatre scene: Chris Imhoff on trumpet, Wesley Day on trombone (and some percussion), the great Kevin Heuer on skins, Kelly Norwine on keyboards and the incredible Doug Norwine on sax. Though on this evening, Andy Welchel and Alan Nowell stepped in at the very last minute on keys and sax and rose to the occasion.
And last, but certainly not least, Johnny Culwell, who played Carl Perkins in the smash hit “Million Dollar Quartet,” was exceptional on lead guitar and stepped into the spotlight for numerous vigorous solo lines.
This show was choreographed by Michael Cherry, who pays homage to The Four Seasons in “Sherry,” Joel and his grease-monkey troupe in “Uptown Girl,”and creates compelling routines, particularly for Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”
The illustrious lightshow was designed by the award-winning Maranda DeBusk (assisted by Taylor Jensen), Victor DeLeon is hair and make-up designer, Ms. Giles and J Baldwin created the costumes, Matthew Polowczuk is sound engineer and Dave LaPage is Stage Manager.
“Rockin’ the Keys” continues through Feb. 10. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. Call (864) 233-6733 or visit www.centrestage.org.