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Mood Fight

Chopstix combines dinnertime with shivering thunder and dope interplay.

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Chopstix might push — OK, hurl — you over the edge.

It all starts innocently. You sit down to dinner. A friendly blonde brings drinks. More drinks. Co-owner PJ Pedroni speaks of heartwarming harmonies about to envelop you, people of many generations all singing along to the same Billy Joel song.

Then another blond appears. Jefrey Taylor takes charge of Chopstix at 8 p.m. sharp, transforming the place into a rowdy, raunchy room where the crowd washes, ocean wavelike, over the tops of their daytime inhibitions.

First Taylor announces that he and fellow pianists Dave Puszykowski and Eric Meany are the crowd’s handmaidens.

“It’s your show,” he says. “You are in charge of what we do.”

It’s true that cash-lubricated requests — for anything from the Beatles to Bob Seger — drive the players. But as they pound and wail through the hits, it becomes clear that the piano men are in control.

“Proud Mary” proved that point on a recent Saturday night. “What would make this song even better is if we had some girls up on the stage doing a little Tina Turner dancing,” Taylor declared.  Almost instantly, four women sprang forward to gyrate, and in seconds, they looked as comfortably festive as if they were at a house party. The piano playing, the singing, the heat of the standing-room-only crowd and the speed of beverage service turn audience members into performers, hams unafraid to vamp and strut. And nobody seems to mind when the pianists make them the butt of bawdy musical jokes.

Most evenings, Chopstix is a multigenerational, multiuse venue, encompassing birthday and bachelorette parties and office get-togethers. But don’t try Chopstix on a first date, unless you’re sure your companion enjoys a lot of beyond-R-rated humor.

The Tacoma bar and restaurant, open since September 2005, is almost twice as big as its Seattle sister, Chopstix in the Queen Anne district. And the crowd here is wilder, according to Taylor. “In Seattle, they just sit and watch the show. People in Tacoma let their hair down,” he says.

They shake their hips, too. Art Martinson of Puyallup, a silver-haired, well-dressed gentleman, was brought up on stage when Taylor and Meany found out it was Martinson’s birthday. Meany proceeded to describe his victim as a sometime Las Vegas Elvis impersonator and wouldn’t let up until Martinson swiveled his hips, at high speed, to “Jailhouse Rock.”

“She made me do it,” Martinson said later, pointing to his partner. “I felt like an idiot.” What he looked like, however, was a good sport.

To Taylor, who’s played in piano bars across North America, Martinson’s performance was a relatively mellow moment. During the second half of the show, which runs till 1:30 a.m., the level of abandon rises, and newly unfettered singers and dancers pay the pianists handsomely for the opportunity. Taylor says he makes $200 to $300 a night in tips. It’s work, not play — he’s had more than his fill of “American Pie,” “Piano Man” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” — but he’ll take this over sitting in a cubicle.

Taylor’s been living in Phoenix, but plans to move to Tacoma this January to help build Chopstix’s franchise here. Pedroni, the co-owner who lives in Fircrest, says many South Sound residents don’t know what to make of the name. They think it’s an Asian restaurant and call to ask if MSG is used.

The answer is no — but just about anything else goes. The mind reels at the repertoire stored in these guys’ fingers and throats; sets careen from Jimmy Buffett to Britney Spears, from Journey to Jerry Lee Lewis, depending on audience requests. Lay your money on the piano and you can hear “Here Comes the Sun,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” or almost anything else you want. Pedroni says his pianists know hundreds of songs.

When Chopstix took over the old Fender’s space at Sixth Avenue and Oakes, it beautified the streetscape with a portrait of Ray Charles on its awning. “We were going to have Elton John out there,” Pedroni says, “but we decided on Ray because he crosses all the lines.” That’s what this place is about: crossing lines and kicking inhibitions out of the way.

Carrie, a Tacoma schoolteacher who declined to give her last name, was one of the Tina Turner dancers. “I loved it,” she said. “I’ve been in Tacoma for years. This is new. This is fun.”

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