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October 21, 2014

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Michael Cavanaugh’s dueling pianos performance keyed a move to ‘Movin’ Out’

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Michael Cavanaugh performs shows tonight and Saturday at Cabaret Jazz.

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Michael Cavanaugh.

One of the great Las Vegas shows over the years I wish that I’d seen was Michael Cavanaugh and Brody Dolyniuk performing on dueling pianos at the Bar at Times Square in New York-New York.

Those must have been some really rowdy times at the fake Times Square. Dolyniuk, founder of the Vegas classic-rock band Yellow Brick Road, is such a talent that Cavanaugh refers to him as “an alien.” As for Cavanaugh, it took him less than 10 minutes to convince Billy Joel that he was the man to play the music in a musical based on Joel’s own hit parade.

That musical would be called “Movin’ Out,” and how Cavanaugh was vaulted into that Broadway production is itself the stuff of a Billy Joel song.

“It’s the coolest thing ever,” says Cavanaugh, who is performing a brimming-with-Billy show tonight and Saturday at Cabaret Jazz in the Smith Center for Performing Arts. Show times are tonight at 7 and Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m. (go to the Smith Center website for information).

It is that. A very cool showbiz odyssey. Cavanaugh’s life and career hit a higher plane on Valentine’s Day 2001 at New York-New York. His partner across the piano at the time was Conrad Hawthorne, as Dolyniuk had by then assembled YBR.

Cavanaugh was looking for a record deal at the time and was friendly with Joel’s tour manager, Max Loubiere. The music-industry heavyweight, who also has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Neil Young and Boston, caught Cavanaugh’s dueling-pianos routine in December 2000. Afterward, he told the young artist that he would bring Joel to the Bar at Times Square when he was back with the Joel-Elton John co-headlining tour, which hit MGM Grand Garden Arena three months later -- landing on Feb. 14.

Loubiere was true to his promise, delivering Joel to the loading docks behind the hotel before Cavanaugh’s set.

“I met Billy, and he said, ‘So, tell me about this gig?’ ” Cavanaugh says, chuckling at the exchange. “He had never seen a dueling piano show like this. He can’t go into these bars, or he’ll be mobbed. I was trying to talk to him and was stammering, stuttering. He was like, ‘Hey, relax, OK?’ ”

That night, Cavanaugh summoned Joel to the stage and, as expected, the place went bananas. The Bar at Times Square is a cozy haunt on any night. On this evening to remember, revelers massed around the two pianos -- there is no stage in the Bar -- and flooded from around the casino floor.

“We were a security risk,” Cavanaugh remembers. “The crowd was just closing in around us. I was thinking, ‘Am I going to lose my life up here?’ ”

They played the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” and Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel,” swapping verses on each song. They met the next night after the Joel-John show at MGM Grand, at Four Seasons, where Joel was staying. Again, they played together. “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” by the Spencer Davis Group, that kind of stuff,” Cavanaugh remembers. “He just loves jamming to old rock ‘n’ roll. There were about 15, 20 people in there.”

Months later, in the fall, Cavanaugh took a call from Tommy Byrnes, Joel’s longtime guitarist, talking of a stage show played to Joel’s music. There was no name, script or even specific vision for the show that would blossom into “Movin’ Out,” but Joel knew who he wanted to perform his music live.

“All I knew is this show might go to Broadway, and Tommy asked if I was interested in coming to New York,” Cavanaugh says. “I said, ‘I’m really not interested in being a pit musician.’ And Tommy said, ‘No, you’ll sing all the stuff and have the spotlight on you the whole time.”

Cavanaugh took the job, a sensible move, and was the lead performer in “Movin’ Out” for 3 1/2 years starting in June 2002, when the show debuted in a pre-Broadway run in Chicago.

“The number of shows that came and went was astronomical,” says Cavanaugh, who appeared in more than 1,200 performances. “It was the toughest gig I’ve ever done.”

That is no small statement from a guy who, for eight years, played casino piano bars filled with hammered tourists shouting "Piano Man!" And what will we see out of him at Cab Jazz?

“We’ll go through Billy’s catalog. We’re not doing everything that people recognize, but we’ll be doing songs from ‘Movin’ Out’ and some obscure songs, too,” he says. “I’ll be telling stories about my life and stories of my interactions with Billy.”

Those tales won’t disappoint. As they say, set it to music.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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