"Good evening, folks! How are you tonight? Somebody say, 'All right!' " greets Gary Mumford as he begins his Rock-n-Roll Piano Show at Rachel's Steak and Seafood Restaurant on South Avenue in Boardman.
"I said, somebody say, 'All right!' " he repeats as he prods his audience to become involved.
The audience is a bit unsure of this vivacious character. Gary continues uninhibited.
"I'm used to having another piano player up here with me," Gary explains. "It's called piano dueling. Forgive me if I'm a bit schizophrenic tonight, up here all by myself."
For the past five years, Gary, a native of Poland, has been on the road piano dueling across the country and abroad.
He rattled off a few locations. "Rotterdam, Holland, San Diego, California, Detroit, Michigan. Next month, I'll be in Georgia, Texas and Arizona."
What it is: "What exactly is piano dueling?" I asked this bubbling ball of energy.
"It's two grand pianos on a big stage. Add a light show," Gary said with his arms outstretched, as if it were all in front of him. "And the audience ... ."
The audience is what Gary loves most.
He loves to sing to them and have them sing. He tells them jokes and takes their requests. He laughs with them and at them.
"Piano dueling is not really trying to sing pretty," he explained. "It's about playing with the audience and being able to let them forget about life and have fun."
The "dueling" takes place as each player tries to win over the audience by outdoing the other.
"In your eyes, as an audience member, you have your favorite player," Gary said.
Whether he's the favorite or not, Gary's goal is always to have fun.
On demand: "What do you want to hear?" he asks the crowd.
Requests pour out from his ever-warming audience.
Sure, he'll play some Elton John.
Stevie Wonder? No problem.
Boy George? No way!
"Who wants Boy George?" he asks, with one eyebrow raised. No one claims that request. They can already feel the embarrassment he is ready to place on them.
Getting his start: "You have to know a lot of songs," Gary said of his art. He recalls the first time he dueled.
"I got a call about a gig," he recalled. "I asked, 'When do we practice?' I was told, 'Just show up.' "
So Gary showed up and had the time of his life.
"Hey, I can do this," he said he thought after his first show. "But I was really rough around the edges. I knew a lot of tunes in my mind -- it was a matter of getting the words and the music together."
Although the music seems to have come together for Gary, the words are another matter.
Asking again for requests, he announces, "I'll mess up any song you want!"
His "mess-ups" involve unexpected twists and changes to lyrics that leave his audience in stitches.
"It's not scripted," he said, laughing. "To amuse myself, I'll change the words."
By now, Gary has his audience almost as hot as he is.
"Sing along!" he demands. "Follow the bouncing piano player!"
The audience joins in for "American Pie," "Brown-Eyed Girl" and "Margaritaville."
Then, Gary wows them with his masterful impersonation of Bob Dylan.
"How does it feel?" he drones. "Like a rolling stone ... ."
Next, he might split the room in half and see which side sings the loudest or knows the most words to songs. Or, maybe he'll go around the room and see which is the best party table. College fight songs always get the crowd roused.
The possibilities are endless when you have taken people seemingly a million miles away from their cares and worries.
"Chantilly lace with a pretty face ..." he sings and swings. "Oh baby that's-a-what I like!"
"Try that again audience," he calls.
In unison, the audience responds, "Oh baby, that's-a-what I like!"
XFor more information about Gary, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.