When entertainer Michael Cavanaugh accepted his first symphony booking, it was in 2008 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with whom he debuted in a Pops concert. Since then, he has performed three more times, most recently in 2016 at Symphony on the Prairie, with the ISO prior to returning to Hilbert Circle Theatre to appear in “Michael Cavanaugh and the ISO: The Music of Billy Joel and Elton John.” I attended Saturday’s performance.
Cavanaugh gained fame as Billy Joel’s handpicked leading man in the 2002 Broadway jukebox musical “Movin’ Out,” which the “Piano Man” created with choreographer Twyla Tharp, The hit show, which garnered Cavanaugh both Tony and Grammy nominations, also earned him the title of “New Voice of the American Rock & Roll Songbook” by Billboard Magazine. After “Movin’ Out” closed in 2005, Cavanaugh, who is also a songwriter, went on to tour four symphony shows he created and performs with his band throughout the country and abroad.
Accompanied by the ISO, led by conductor Jack Everly, whom he credited with launching that part of his career performing with symphony orchestras, Cavanaugh was also joined by his band. The group included Jamie Hosmer on keys, Billy Venditti on bass, drummer Johnny Fedevich, Dennis Delgaudio on guitar, and saxophonist John Scarpulla.
Notwithstanding the fact that he is a virtuoso pianist and terrific vocalist, the photogenic Cavanaugh also exhibited a striking stage presence and showmanship that connected him to a nearly full house comprised primarily of baby boomers, who presumably were there to soak up music from the soundtrack of their lives. As someone from that same era that Joel and John were at their peak, I certainly relived my youth listening to Cavanaugh’s glorious interpretations of the rock icons’ music.
Performing a setlist jam-packed with Joel’s and John’s hits, Cavanaugh’s performance was thoroughly enhanced by his seasoned band, featuring phenomenal solo work from sax player Scarpulla and guitarist DelGaudio. Couple those sounds with that of the powerfully versatile musicians of the ISO, Joel’s and John’s music never sounded better.
Highlights of the program, and there were many, included Joel’s “Movin’ Out, “Just the Way You Are,” “You May Be Right,” and “The River of Dreams.” Sir Elton’s music also received the royal treatment when Cavanaugh and company performed “Tiny Dancer,” “Honky Cat,” “Bennie and The Jets,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Crocodile Rock.” Away from the piano, Cavanaugh also showed his skill at working the stage, as he rocked to John’s “I’m Still Standing,” and Joel’s “You May be Right.”
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the genial Cavanaugh’s performance was his easy rapport with the audience and genuine interactions with a crowd that seemed engaged and pleased to be in the company of others experiencing live entertainment. Though COVID-19 still poses a threat, Cavanaugh’s joy-filled performance with our city’s treasured ISO represented hope that maybe life as we used to know it, truly is returning to normal.