The arts aren't for sissies, though that's exactly what an aspiring young pianist might be labeled when he's stuck at home practicing while the neighborhood boys head off to shoot hoops. But watch a pianist's hands sometime: wrists unnaturally arched, fingers muscularly striking the keys. That takes real strength. And perseverance.
"2 Pianos 4 Hands," a mid-1990s theatrical work that follows two boys into the world of classical piano, chronicles the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat so common to that discipline.
Vigorous and amusing, the show has been performed around the world, in dozens upon dozens of cities, but it's been surprisingly little-seen in the Los Angeles area. How gratifying, then, to see it programmed into the Laguna Playhouse season, in a ready-made Marquis Entertainment production that gleams like the polish on a grand piano.
As the two-person show relives the experiences of Ted and Richard named after creators and original performers Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt it progresses through mind-twisting drills, tedious hours of practice, terrifying public competitions and, most thrillingly, those breakthrough moments that make everything worthwhile.
For the audience, this shared experience is like joining the aspiring dancers of "A Chorus Line" or the young spellers of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
But more essentially, it resonates with anyone who's ever had a dream.
Tom Frey portrays Ted, and Richard Carsey is Richard. Both men have performed the show extensively, and they masterfully hit the story's beats, under Greenblatt's direction.
Seated facing each other across the long expanses of twin grand pianos, the actors portray the young musicians and, in alternating scenes, switch into roles as parents, teachers and adjudicators.
The boys squirm on their benches and grimace through exercises. The adults press weary fingers to their foreheads and bang frustratedly at the piano's shell.
Progressively more difficult music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt and others propels the scenes, with the likes of Elton John, John Lennon and Vangelis providing the notes for a romp into the world of pop.
The focus remains resolutely on the players, since the stage is left bare, in Steve Lucas' design, except for the pianos and two huge gold picture frames beyond, which are inset with screens that display simple scene-setting projections. The performers slip out of formal black tails to play the everyday scenes and don the coats again for their big finale.
Frey's Ted tends to be more persnickety and arrogant; Carsey's Richard is looser and goofier, but no less competitive. Flipping through endless pages of tricky passages, one might moan, "Oh, yeah! Like someone could actually play this." Fumbling a phrase halfway through, he will lament, "How are you supposed to make your fingers do that?" But when the musicians get everything right, the notes ripple and percolate, skip and twirl.
The second act bogs down in one too many scenes of dreams running smack into walls. Still, the point is effectively conveyed: A person's true mettle is revealed in those moments in which he or she recovers and keeps on going.
Life's not for sissies, either.
A pair of lively pianist-actors brings every former musician's childhood memories to life.
When I was 9, I endured a year with Mrs. Shannon. I'm sure most people thought she was a sweet old lady, but the moment I entered her dark, overheated home she turned into the piano teacher from hell. Scales, chords, arpeggios, contrary motion, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms - nothing was good enough, fast enough, clean enough. I often came stumbling down her steps fighting back the tears.
Anyone with a childhood story like mine will encounter a lot of déjà vu moments in 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which opened Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse. Since its birth more than a decade ago, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt's unusual script about the joys and maddening frustrations of playing the piano has been an oddball but durable hit, first in its native Canada, then in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa and the U.S.
Its popularity defies some long odds. Dykstra and Greenblatt starred in the original production, and the play is somewhat autobiographical, following their progress from stumbling beginners to budding virtuosi 10 years later. Both the authors are accomplished pianists and first-rate thespians. Casting others in the roles has been an extreme challenge, its creators admit.
Fortunately, the Laguna show features two of Dykstra and Greenblatt's favorite actors in the roles. Richard Carsey and Tom Frey have done 2 Pianos 4 Hands many times (Frey claims over 250 performances in his bio), and their theatrical resumés are as impressive as their pianism. Greenblatt directed this staging, which is wisely kept simple (Steve Lucas' scenic design consists of a couple of framed screens, used for projections and silhouettes, upstage of two back-to-back grand pianos).The story takes us through scenarios that will seem all too familiar to those who have been down the rocky road of musical apprenticeship. We meet a rich gallery of teachers, all of them eccentric: a weary nun whose last ounce of patience long ago evaporated; an old Italian with a bad back whose musical philosophy hinges on the concept of machismo; a Frenchman who visualizes the piano as a woman with whom the pianist must make love using his entire body (information that proves intriguing but useless to his unworldly teenage student).
Frey plays Ted, Carsey is Richard. Without costume changes, the two men alternate portraying the young hopefuls, their mentors and hectoring parents as the boys slowly mature before our eyes. That maturity brings growing mastery and confidence as the pair meet, compete and - occasionally and reluctantly - play together. "The Birch Canoe" gives way to Mozart's Sonata Facile, and by the second act we're deep into heavy-duty solo repertoire: Chopin's Prelude in D Flat Major, Schumann's Fantasiestucke, Beethoven's Pathetique sonata.
With increasing skill come the gray clouds of self-doubt and cynicism. Both pianists encounter a moment of truth when a professional musician delivers the shattering news that they don't have what it takes to make it. These scenes, masterfully written and acted, add unexpected poignancy. And they're followed by some sobering episodes when Ted struggles as piano teacher to a bored housewife and Richard suffers insults from a belligerent drunk at a piano bar. Anyone who has been forced to come to terms with the limitations of a long-honed talent will cringe at the unflinching honesty of such moments.
Fortunately, the show's overarching theme isn't futility, but the elemental joy that accompanies music making. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is at its best when its two characters lose themselves in the magic of bringing a masterpiece (or even a homely little ditty like "Heart and Soul") to life. While neither performer is Andre Watts, they play together with brio and an impressive sense of ensemble. And they're also actors, so they know how to cut us up, even in the middle of a light-speed trill. Imagine Victor Borge times two.
The evening ends with a performance of the entire first movement of J.S. Bach's D Minor Concerto, a big, cerebral monster that taxes even the best pianists. It's not a perfect rendition, but that's not the point. For Dykstra and Greenblatt, and for the talented duo who bring the Laguna production to life, it's all about conveying the joy of the moment - that fleeting euphoria you feel when you're doing something very difficult with abandon, élan and expertise, and keeping failure and confusion at bay (sometimes just barely).It's the reason we drag ourselves back to the ballet studio or the tennis court or the ski slopes day after day: to capture the same look of triumph that Frey and Carsey wore as they acknowledged their standing ovation on Saturday. Nothing can undermine that feeling - not even memories of Mrs. Shannon.
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