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Bar Chords 

A Saturday spent way off Broadway.

Whether you're a seasoned veteran of musical theater or someone who only belts out "Oklahoma" in the shower, you have something in common with Bob Navis, the artistic director at Ohio City's Near West Theatre. Four years ago, Navis walked into the Harmony Bar and Grille and noticed a piano tucked away in the corner. "I was dreaming out loud to the owner of the bar," he recalls, "saying I'd always hoped that, one day, I could have a place to come and perform the music I love, and maybe people could sing with me." Countless Saturday nights and thousands of show tunes later, Navis is still tickling the ivories and making ordinary people feel like stars.

Officially billed as a sing-along, Saturday nights at the Harmony comfortably rest several notches above beer-fueled karaoke and more often resemble a cabaret show. Although at times everyone is singing along -- carelessly loud and off-key, with drinks swaying in raised hands -- most performances are solo, with everything from a haunting duet of "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd to Navis's own raucous rendition of "Blame Canada" from South Park: The Movie.

"Sometimes I can't believe how many people show up," Navis marvels. Some visitors even arrive with sheet music in hand, eager to perform a song they have been rehearsing for this moment alone. Others spend hours digging through the music books in Navis's collection. "There are literally some people that have been there every week for the last four years."

One of these loyalists is Sharron DeCosta, a trained singer who spends her Saturdays with Navis. "I am not right to play an ingenue, but at the Harmony, I can stand inside the skin of an Eliza Doolittle or Cinderella or Mary Poppins," she explains.

Navis agrees that is part of the appeal. "There are people that maybe weren't cast in a lead role or don't even perform at all, but they really want to sing in front of an audience. This is the place for them."

And when performers do make it to the mic, they can put their faith in Navis's accompaniment. "There's courage and vulnerability in getting up to sing," Navis says. "I take it like this is a nightclub moment for you, and I'm going to make you look as good as you can."

Which doesn't ensure that things won't be reduced to typical amateur singing. To avoid embarrassment, Navis advises that you pick a song you know. "People sing songs they aren't familiar with -- they don't even know the melody, let alone the words. That's the nightmare-karaoke version of the Harmony."

But even with the nightmares, Navis has no plans to end his weekly gig anytime soon. "I have some ideas for doing new things. But then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he adds. "We'll see what happens."

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