There are some shows you can see over and over again. They are like the welcome return of an old friend. Such is 2 Pianos 4 Hands.
The production has become a Canadian classic. It first saw the light of day in 1996 and has since toured the world to the tune of more than 700 performances.
2 Pianos 4 Hands is the brainchild of Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt. Independently, both men are well known in Canadian theatre circles as actors, directors and writers. Something magical happened when they collaborated on this show.
It turns out that both had studied the piano in serious fashion, and 2 Pianos 4 Hands is dedicated to their teachers, Lillian Upright of Edmonton (Dykstra) and the late Dorothy Morton of Montreal (Greenblatt).
2 Pianos 4 Hands is about young people and their love/hate relationship with learning to play the piano. In the long run, it is also about the "right stuff" needed to have a career as a professional musician.
The most poignant scenes occur near the end of the show, when Dykstra is turned down by the conservatory and Greenblatt is rejected by the Faculty of Jazz. Until then, they've been the cocks of the walk, winning their piano competitions in easy fashion.
Despite the serious underpinnings of this production, namely working hard at a talent only to have the dream shattered, 2 Pianos 4 Hands is riotously funny.
The set contains two grand pianos facing each other. The men take turns playing their young selves, as well as the adults in their lives. There are two video screens to establish place, such as windows to represent piano studios and a logo for the conservatory. Quite frankly, these screens are underused. They are mainly swatches of colour.
The beginning business is Victor Borge-ish as they take time to settle in, first changing pianos, then changing piano benches. They start with scales, then riff into those old hoary piano standards for beginners, Heart and Soul and Chopsticks.
The scenes with Teddy and Richie in their early years are laugh-out-loud funny. In particular, Dykstra's portrayal of the long-suffering Sister Loyola, Richie's first teacher, is worth the price of admission alone.
At first, the boys chafe at having to practise the piano and there are very funny confrontations with their parents. Anyone who has studied piano will instantly sympathize with the yearly Kiwanis competitions, and the 67 entries all playing the same piece. Then come the conservatory exams and piano theory.
One hilarious vignette has the two perform what amounts to a quasi-rap song made up of musical terms. They speak faster and faster as they rhyme off fortissimo, adagio, presto and the like.
A reversal takes place toward the end, when the two teenagers become glued to their pianos. For example, Teddy's father worries that he has no social life.
When they are rejected for advanced training, Ted becomes a piano teacher and Rich becomes a pianist in a cocktail bar. While both scenes contain amusing dialogue, there is a melancholy tone – all that work and passion poured into a dream that will never happen.
Both Dykstra and Greenblatt are engaging performers. Their comic timing is superb, and the construction of the show is perfection, flowing from youth to adulthood without missing a beat. The pieces they play during the show, particularly the Bach encore, demonstrate just what talented classical pianists they are.
The good news is that music's loss is theatre's gain. One hopes that Dykstra and Greenblatt will continue to enrich the Canadian theatre scene for many years to come.
And remember, this is the last time that 2 Pianos 4 Hands is coming our way before Dykstra and Greenblatt retire the show. Don't miss these farewell performances.
2 Pianos 4 Hands continues until Nov. 20.
2 Pianos 4 Hands
- Created, performed and directed by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt
- David Mirvish/Marquis Entertainment/Talking Fingers
- At the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto