Q&A: Donnie Kehr
Actor and musician Donnie Kehr is no stranger to performing in Las Vegas. Years ago he was one of the dueling pianists at the infamous Times Square Bar at New York-New York and at Napoleon’s at Paris Las Vegas, then he snagged a role in the original cast of Jersey Boys on Broadway. He played that part in the Vegas version of the show and in the Clint Eastwood-directed film as well, just one of his many screen and stage credits.
Kehr is taking advantage of his varied experience with his new show, The Greatest Piano Men, opening March 26 at the Flamingo’s Donny & Marie Showroom. Kehr and his fellow piano men Greg Ransom, Peter Peterkin and Stephen “Hoops” Snyder are paying tribute to Elton John, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stevie Wonder and more masters of song, but not necessarily in the traditional way.
What’s it like to be back on the Vegas stage?
It’s great. I love this town. There are such great musicians out here, such great talent. I’m from New York so I’m used to that but it’s hard to find around the rest of the country, that caliber of talent you want to work with.
What was your goal in creating Greatest Piano Men?
I didn’t want it to be the typical tribute show and it’s not an impersonator show. It’s me and three other piano players and a seven-piece band backing us up and we’re honoring these legends, these piano icons. It’s not, “This is Elton John!” It’s Greg. But we go into the song and you close your eyes and think you’re hearing Elton because he naturally sings that way. And it’s all hits. The music is it. We are just having a blast.
And since you’re playing so many songs from many different artists, it’s a bit of a history lesson, too.
All these songs were written for the piano by piano players. And there were rock stars before there were rock stars, guys like Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Scott Joplin and Gershwin. All those guys were just bad asses. The thought is, let’s take people on a journey from when the piano first started and bring it all the way up.
With all that material to choose from, how do you go about selecting songs?
The bottom line is a good song is a good song, but I picked the songs based upon flow of show. I wanted to build it so it had peaks and valleys but in order to get to the peak you’ve got to go through the valley. We want to keep people’s attention, which seems to be getting shorter and shorter. We do as much as we can and we keep it moving.
You’ve been a professional actor since you were a child. What came first, music or theater?
I started playing piano when I was 11 years old then I got my first Broadway show when I was 12. I knew even when I was a kid, I thought, let me get as many skills as I can and then I’ll never be out of work. I’ve worked with a lot of great people and learned a lot.
Your show is playing in the same room as Donny and Marie Osmond, who are wrapping up their decade-long residency at the Flamingo this year. Maybe Greatest Piano Men will take over?
We are hoping for the best. I don’t like to predict but I will say I think we have a good shot at pleasing a lot of people. We’ve created a show that’s iconic.