When 2 Pianos 4 Hands was in Charlottetown for a short time in 1997 starring its creators, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, I was unable to go and listened enviously to others rave about it. I really wanted to see it as I had taken piano lessons for many years, so when it was scheduled to be at the MacKenzie Theatre in the summer of 2001, I made sure I had a ticket.
Donna Garner and Jacqueline Sadler are the only performers in this play but with just their pianos for props, they are able to fill the stage with students, teachers, parents, adjudicators and examiners. Working together in a flawless team, the actresses create a cast of characters which includes an eight year old practicing on a piano, a teenager competing
at a festival, a parent trying to make a child practice, and an elderly teacher trying to inspire an untalented student. The two stars are such good actresses that you almost forget they are also great musicians, but the music seldom stops as the scene shifts from one piano to the next without a beat being missed. Garner and Sadler play separately on their own pianos, together at one piano, and then together on two pianos, and through it all, they entertain and make you laugh.
You don’t have to have been a music student to be able to appreciate the music festival adjudicator listening for three days to the same piece of music being performed by novice musicians, and any athlete can relate to the grind of
having to practice something over and over to achieve perfection. Probably only a musician can appreciate the agony of being asked by an examiner to play a scale in C sharp minor when there are so many other easier ones, but everyone can appreciate being asked to perform a difficult task under pressure. That Garner and Sadler can take these situations and make them hilariously funny is a reflection of a good script in the hands of strong actresses.
The program says that this is one of the most successful shows in Canadian theatre history, having played in Europe, Australia, and the United States after being introduced in Canada in 1996. I’m glad it’s in Charlottetown again and that I went to see it. It was worth waiting for.
Donna Garner recalls the time that her piano teacher stopped her music lessons to cut her fingernails.
"She was very sweet, but she did it. And I was very embarrassed," says Garner, who is finding many of her childhood piano stories played out in this season’s musical at the Charlottetown Festival.
She plays Thea in 2 Pianos 4 Hands.
This fast-paced, fun show takes a humourous look at how music grew in two young people and how they grew up in music.
It’s playing at the MacKenzie Theatre in Charlottetown until Oct. 6.
Whether it was learning to keep her finger nails short or dealing with the boredom of repetitive practicing she can truly relate.
"The stories (in the show) are true. They’re elaborated on, for the sake of comedy and stage and all that. But we’ve been there, through being told to curve our fingers and do other things that didn’t make any sense to us (at the time)," says Garner, now a voice and piano teacher and Royal Conservatory examiner.
Like Garner, co-star Jacqueline Sadler has her own share of piano stories.
As a piano student, she would come up with diversions, while plunking out her scales.
"We were told to practice hands separately. So I would use that as an excuse to eat," says Sadler, who plays Rachel.
Like her character, who would drink a glass of milk while playing, she became very good at balancing a bag of potato chips or French Fries on the piano bench beside her.
"I practiced with one hand and ate with the other."
"Everyone was happy. If they heard music going on it was fine," says Sadler, now a well-respected performer, recitalist, soprano, adjudicator and accompanist.
Then, when Garner really got bored she used her pent-up energies to explore other artistic disciplines.
"I remember one time when I was told to practise, when I was really little. I took a compass and I drew a whole picture on the side of our piano – a lady in a dress.
"It was a bad thing to do, but it’s been refinished since then ," she says, trying to suppress a smile.
While the show is about two women reliving their childhood piano memories, it’s also a story about two women living in the moment and creating synchronicity and harmony on stage.
"This is the third summer that Jacqueline and I have worked together. And we have the utmost regard for each other – especially on stage," Garner says.
Previously, the two performed in Cowgirls at Victoria Playhouse (B.C.) and Stage West Calgary last summer.
Now in Charlottetown playing twin grand pianos at the MacKenzie Theatre, they spend a huge amount of time thinking about each other, says Sadler.
"Whether it’s knowing what the other person is going to do. Or, if something happens to the other one – "Is she O.K? Did she hurt herself? Did someone distract her? Did the key not work?" So, it’s become a give and take relationship."
And because timing is so important to maintaining this harmony, they practise, practise, practise.
"When we were preparing for the show we would practise three to four hours a day. Now we play between 60 to 90 minutes cumulative.
"But we don’t play for long periods of time before that. Because, during the show we just go gangbusters for 90 minutes from start to finish. It’s tiring," says Garner.
Their collective enthusiasm impresses the director.
"Jacqueline and Donna have all the commitment it takes to perform the show. After having seen the show in London, Ont., they vowed to audition for it together. They started to get together to practice the Bach D Minor," writes Karen Woolridge in the director’s notes. "In time they approached the show’s agent, Talking Fingers, and were auditioned by the creators. After months and months of practicing here they are to perform for you."