It’s been 15 years since classically trained pianist and actor Richard Greenblatt blew Toronto audiences away with "Soft Pedalling," his one-man show that toured Canada for two years; and it’s been nine years since Ted Dykstra caused a sensation at the keyboards in Paul Ledoux and David Young’s evangelical rock musical, "Fire" (though less than one since Dykstra’s exquisite rendering of oily Cousin Kevin in the Toronto production of "Tommy").
For those who recall these performances, as well as Greenblatt’s writing and directing expertise, there was never any doubt that "2 Pianos 4 Hands" would be worthy. But the extent to which this collaborative project succeeds in engaging audiences is a surprised even to the fans of the talented duo.
For one thing, it’s the first time Greenblatt and Dykstra have unleashed the full force of their classical music training on Canada’s theatre community (the show tours the country until May 1997); they end the evening with the first movement of Bach’s D-Minor Concerto and follow that with an encore of Bach’s
"Sheep May Safely Graze."
If this were all, it would be most impressive, for as they note in the show, they may not be the world’s two best pianists, or even the city’s, but they sure are the best in the neighbourhood. And that may be too modest.
But Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin are merely the main course in a musical meal including everything from "Piano Man" to "Summertime," set within a dramatic framework that loosely tells the story of both artists’ childhood and teenage struggles to master their musical instrument.
While many of the pieces are played seriously, the show is anything but; take-offs, pastiches and routines in the style of Liberace and Borge aboud, as do hilarious one-liners. After all, this is primarily a piece of theatre, and what it offers is a razor-sharp insight into the world of training and competition. Even those who are tone-deaf and have never handled a musical instrument will enjoy flying up and down the various dramatic and musical scales.
And despite the personal storyline, the play’s theme resonates clearly
beyond the arts into other world – wherever winning and sacrifice are the order of the day.
Tarragon’s stage is dominated by two grand pianos, a setup designed by Steve Lucas to keep Greenblatt and Dykstra front and centre, where they also demonstrate their considerable comic skills. Some sections actually verge on standup comedy, but this does not prevent the two actors from also carrying a few deeply affecting moments. One scene in particular, where Dykstra auditions for Canada’s top music school only to be contemptuously dismissed as supremely talented but undisciplined, is devastating.
The mix of genres and styles is never confusing or distracting in a script carefully structured to stay on track with a simplicity that renders the final result engaging and popular, without being cheaply sentimental or lazy. "2 Pianos 4 Hands" is destined to travel far, not only across Canada, but also within international cultural circles.
Comedy at the piano is a small category and the names of past winners may make you groan. There’s Victor Borge. Remember Liberace? Now add Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt to the list and throw out all your preconceptions. Neither camp nor corny, their show is much more than a routine, it’s a dramatic gem. 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which opened at the Tarragon Theatre last night, is funny, clever, insightful and touching, full of music, humour, story and character.
Alone on a simple stage with a grand piano each, Dykstra and Greenblatt start with an amusing little piece of mime about throat clearing and bench adjusting. They play some Bach and soon go on to establish their modus operandi. Each one plays his young self – a promising little pianist named either Teddy or Ricky – while the other plays a teacher or parent. They start on Hoagy Carmichael’s Heart and Soul, that two-handed piece that is a cliché of first piano lessons. They move on to jokes about Kiwanis festivals and imitate high-voiced music teachers
("B flat, Richard, B flat"). The territory is amusing but predictable enough.
But it is in the midst of a scene between Richard and his interfering father that you realize Greenblatt and Dykstra are not kidding around. The tidy little scene gently and poignantly summarizes the way in which the father’s lost musical ambitions are being lived out in the child’s practice sessions. There are musical jokes here, to be sure, but there’s also a powerful moment of genuine human drama.
From there, 2 Pianos 4 Hands never looks back. It follows Ted and Richard as they grow from prodigies in the under-12 category to awkward teen-agers experimenting with girls and jazz, skillfully weaving a little music and a lot of laughs into the story. Greenblatt and Dykstra create a whole series of characters without ever changing out of their tuxedoes, simple relying on voice, mannerism and posture. They are particularly good at capturing the sheepish looks and slumped backs of recalcitrant
children, and their briefer characterizations of various competing music teachers, each one sinking the knife into his predecessor’s work, are hilarious.
Because Greenblatt and Dykstra so carefully establish these subtle nuances of tone in the first half – it’s their show, but they give credit to Tarragon Theatre’s Andy McKim as a directorial consultant – they can become magnificently serious in the second half. There, as Richard and Ted discover they are not good enough to become concert pianists, 2 Pianos 4 Hands takes a gentle look at musical obsession and broken dreams. Before they leave us with a joyous rendition of the first movement of Bach’s D Minor Piano Concerto, Richard and Ted agree they are not the best pianists in the world. Nor, they sadly realize, are they the best pianists in the country or the city. But for sure they are the best pianists in the neighbourhood. And as comedians at the piano – well, they’ve reinvented the genre.

Created and performed by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt. Design by Steve Lucas. Until May 5 at Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave.

By GEOFF CHAPMAN DRAMA CRITIC


Not a sour note. Not a lost chord. Not a misplaced phrase.
That might be a way to start a commentary on a music recital, but it works even better for the inspired show that opened last night at Tarragon Theatre.
With constant howls of delighted audience recognition, all of whom clearly seem to have suffered the agonies of piano lessons and piano teachers, the presentation of 2 Pianos 4 Hands sets a new mark for polished performance and slick comedy in a current theatrical season that has been distinguished by very few laughathons.
The collaboration between Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt is an unlikely but delightful stirring together of the theatrical and musical
worlds, comic scenes connected by music drawn from a huge variety of styles.
At first it seemed that a mere extended skit in the manner of Victor Borge was on the cards as the actors kidded around while preparing to play two huge conservatory grand pianos. But then, with narrative zip, visual wit a sense of scale and some fascinating dramatic rhythms, the pair created a hilarious compendium of incidents in the life of those who try - and ultimately fail - to play the instrument well.
Along the way they reprise the horrors of practice, imitate the martinets and maniacs who insist on pinaistic perfection, play roles as adjudicators and examiners and music school chiefs, and generate a chuckle a minute while so doing.
Not only that, their keyboard facility is obvious. Both play with confidence, the show closing with an emphatic reading of Bach's D Minor Concerto that would be enough to please all but purists. In fact, when they get serious (both actors won competitions in their youth) of extracts from the classic
European repertoire to suggest that major artistic achievement was more than a remote possibility.
They mimic the mannerisms of pop players and the mindlessness of what passes for memorable melodies, but there's more to this uncommon mix of artistic forms than mocking depictions of the learning process.
Learning to play piano is represented as an overture to growing up. The crafty vignettes highlight the inevitable clashes with parental authority, the rigorous demands if a professional career is contemplated, and the difficulty of maintaining self-motivation. When maturity takes over, there's a different kind of enthusiasm and conviction and some awareness of reality.
That's the serious side of the show, and the mini-melodramas that occur in the second half, though real enough, somewhat weaken the entertainment's splendid achievements. It would be enough to enjoy the cabaret, as farce, as hilarious recall of youth's trials by a pair of artists who've turned a neat idea into a satisfying piece of theatre.
HERE IN TORONTO, YOU WOULD CALL IT 2 Pianos 4 Hands, 1 More Chance.

In the wake of an acclaimed world premiere and a tremendously successful run at the Tarragon Theatre in 1996, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt took their 2 Pianos 4 Hands, a charming and at-times-thoughtful look at years of piano lessons, on the road.

They eventually landed in New York, and were enthusiastically embraced by audiences and most of the critics as well.

And now, Ed and David Mirvish, who underwrote the Big Apple foray, have brought the show back home for a run on the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, where it opened in a limited run last night.

It's a slicker affair: A showier set by Steve Lucas that still reflects the original Tarragon concept and a more professional patina, courtesy of director Gloria Muzio, who put a New York big house sheen on Andy McKim's original staging.

But essentially, it's the same show - a journey shared with two gifted young piano students who finally must come to terms with their own adequacy in a field that demands nothing less than genius.

Dykstra and Greenblatt play the students and, in fact, built the show on many of their youthful experiences, a fact that also gives them plenty of opportunity to exact revenge on teachers, parents, festival officials and the like, for long-ago torments.

They do, of course, with an enthusiasm that is undiminished.
After several hundred performances and Lord knows how many miles, the good news is that this gifted twosome appear to have lost none of their taste for their material - an enthusiasm that extends far beyond accomplished keyboard work to test their mettle as comedic actors, as well.

Under Muzio's guidance, their work is a little broader, their delivery a trifle more assured, but they remain the essential heart of the show.

It's a commendable commitment, but it may have made it harder to tinker with the very small but nonetheless very real flaws in the material, flaws which Muzio's more sophisticated staging serves to highlight, rather than conceal.

As a comedy, 2P4H still soars, which accounts in no small part for its continuing success.

But one suspects that if Dykstra and Greenblatt could be seduced into occasionally going deeper into the human depth of the story, it could be powerful theatre as well.

On the road to maturity, not every experience can be played purely for the laughs, and by insisting on a relentlessly comedic approach, Muzio diminishes not just their achievement, but their show as well.

As it stands now, 2P4H is one of the best new shows in the neighborhood.

With effort, discipline and strong direction - direction that favors humanity over humor and hype - it could have been one of the best new shows on the continent.

RATING: 4 out of 5