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Michael Cavanaugh to play Elton John songs with Orlando Philharmonic

Michael Cavanaugh at the piano
Michael Cavanaugh at the piano

He walks onstage, sits at the piano, gets in the mood, owns the song and becomes the star. Maybe he doesn’t quite look like Billy Joel or Elton John, but that’s not the point: the talent is in his earnest performances of a rich body of pop tunes, so beloved by American audiences of different generations.

Hailed as the new voice of the American rock and roll songbook and recently named "Corporate Entertainer of the Year" by Reuters, Michael Cavanaugh made a name for himself when spotted by Billy Joel in a Las Vegas dueling pianos bar in 2001. The man himself chose Cavanaugh as the star of the new Broadway Musical Movin’ Out, in which he performed more than 1,000 shows over three years.

Cavanaugh returns to Orlando for two shows with the Orlando Philharmonic on January 11. He rocked the Bob Carr in 2012, playing Billy Joel tunes, and now he will be paying tribute to the great Elton John.

Although him and his band barely knew anything about playing with a live orchestra when first approached with the idea years ago, they have gone on to perform with more than 50 orchestras across the country. “The first time I ever played with an orchestra was with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. I couldn't believe it, it was Carnegie Hall!” remembers Cavanaugh. They initially performed their own Billy Joel show with the Indianapolis Symphony and now, after many years, the orchestral accompaniment feels essentially like second nature to the band.

But Cavanaugh’s early days weren’t as glamorous as the big star he is now. The Ohio native got his first real taste of the job in Cancun in early 90s, when he was honeymooning with his wife. He checked out piano bars and soon got a gig. “The thing that concerned me a little bit about doing piano bars is that they were pretty raunchy,” he remembers. His Cancun contact later referred him to Blazing Pianos in Orlando, which would become his first full-time in-house gig.

In 1999 he moved to Las Vegas to work a similar gig, making twice as much. Just a few years later, the fateful meeting with Billy Joel took place. Joel liked him so much that they ended up jamming together the night they met. Soon after September 11, he moved to New York and started working with famous American dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp on Movin’ Out, who conceived the hit musical about a youth living through the Vietnam era of the 60s.

“Even though I've sung [Elton John’s and Billy Joel’s songs] so many times, I realize how great they are. That's why I don't get tired of singing them, especially when I got this killer band behind me and we're playing with these great orchestras. It doesn't get old,” reveals Cavanaugh, whose passion for this music permeates the concert hall every time he plays.

An interesting fact about Cavanaugh is that he possesses perfect pitch. “I learn anything by ear. When I hear a song I immediately know what notes and what chords are being played,” he says.

“I also have this quirky thing called synesthesia. What that is is different things present themselves in colors in my mind's eye. When I hear a C chord in my mind I see the shade of red,” he adds, revealing a cross-sensory musical gift that further elevates his uniqueness.

When not onstage, in the musical theater or on the road, Cavanaugh works out, plays racquetball, watches sports and is a self-proclaimed “total hands-on dad.”

Catch Cavanaugh’s The Songs of Elton John & More! show with the Orlando Philharmonic next Saturday, January 11 at 2 p.m. and at 8 p.m. at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre.

Expect to hear Elton classics like “Benny and the Jets,” his version of the Who hit “Pinball Wizard,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Rocket Man,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Goodbye Yellow Big Road,” among many others.

To visit the OPO's website and purchase tickets to the show, click here, or call the box office at 407-770-0071.

To visit Michael Cavanaugh’s website, click here.

To watch a short promo video of the show, click here.

To watch a full performance by Cavanaugh of the classic “Candle in the Wind,” click here.

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