["Pianomen," at the Virginia Samford Theatre in Birmingham through April 29; 251-1206; Review gets four out of five stars.]
“Pianomen” really isn’t a play. It’s not theater.
It’s more like a chance for a guy to sit down at the piano, tell us a few stories about his life and, mainly, sing the songs of Billy Joel, Elton John, Barry Manilow and others while three of his friends sing back-up.
Thank goodness that guy is Lonnie Parsons, one of the most talented guys around when it comes to playing the piano and singing. And it doesn’t hurt that his talented trio of friends is made up of Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, Jan D. Hunter and Amy Johnson.
Parsons has been on stage many times in different musicals and singing with vocal groups, but it’s these songs – ballads and rock and roll that all had the piano in common – that are really in his wheelhouse. He’s as comfortable singing Elton John’s gritty “Take Me to the Pilot” as he is singing the emotional “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” which he hit out of the ballpark Friday night; as at home with belting out Billy Joel’s “These Are the Times” as he is pounding out the challenging instrumental “Prelude to Angry Young Man.” He can be reverent, singing the heck out of Manilow’s “Weekend in New England,” and funny, poking fun with the hysterical “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow” (probably the only song out there whose climactic word is “Yucky.”)
You get the picture. This is really more of a concert than a musical, and the Virginia Samford Theatre, in this case, is more of a rollicking bar than a theater.
Since he first did “Pianomen” two years ago, Parsons has expanded it and added some theatrical elements. Video shows his hands at work on the piano, which is impressive, and a segment depicting the events described in “Copacabana” is fun, too.
Like any good musician, Parsons has surrounded himself with other good musicians. The “back-up singers” all distinguish themselves with great solos – Higginbotham with “Georgia On My Mind,” Johnson with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and Hunter with “Leader of the Pack.” The experience of the trio doesn’t hurt, either. Sound problems abounded in Act I on opening night, but they took it all in stride, bantering with the audience as everything got worked out.
Parsons has wisely expanded his band for this edition of “Pianomen.” Talented Reggie Yarbrough is still with him on keyboard and saxophone, but the work of Pierce Cowart, Ron Dometrovich, Lissa LeGrand and Joe Cooley add some dimension to many of the songs.
Still, the piano is front and center, and Parsons is everyone you’d want behind it – Joel, John, Manilow, Ben Folds, Liberace … and Parsons himself.