By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The charming, poignant, and very funny musical comedy now at the Mayfield begins in classic concert fashion: the bow from the waist and the flipping of the tuxedo tails. Two men in formal tuxes take their seats at two facing (Yamaha) grand pianos onstage.
After a flurry of fussing about 2 piano benches, and whose 2 hands will play which piano, the stars of 2 Pianos 4 Hands, Jefferson McDonald and Matthew McGloin, tuck briefly but impressively into Bach’s Concerto in D minor, a piece of music which to my knowledge has never been on the program music list at the Mayfield till now. No mere tickling of the ivories here. Then they instantly flip into the past, via that indelible signature tune of the youthful piano lesson memory bank world-wide, Heart and Soul.
The audience emits the amused murmur of recognition. Personally I can’t hear it without remembering my mom yelling from the kitchen “that’s not what you’re supposed to be practising!”
2 Pianos 4 Hands, the much-awarded hit co-created by Canadian theatre stars Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt in 1996 at the prompting of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, is a bona fide Canuck theatre success story. And it’s one that comes with a unique history, and a casting challenge to match. Where, after all, besides the co-playwrights, are you going to find actors who can be funny, compelling, and play Chopin Ballades and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, and then My Funny Valentine and Piano Man? Hurray for the Mayfield; in Tom Frey’s production they’ve done it.
As for history, the play has travelled across the country, across borders (including runs Off-Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, in the U.K.), and around the world. Sometimes its creators have been at the 2 pianos (they’ve done 5,000 performances), sometimes not. I remembering previewing the 2013 run of 2 Pianos 4 Hands at the Citadel here in Dykstra’s home town (OK, he’s from St. Albert), one of their so-called “farewell tours.” Ah, more like “till we meet again”: this past June, they played their sixth sold-out Toronto run, at Mirvish’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, in honour of the show’s 25th anniversary.
Anyhow it’s their story (with embellishments). The discovery they shared a past forged in piano lessons came in 1994 while they were doing a kids’ show, So You Think You’re Mozart, with Dykstra as the piano student and Greenblatt as Mozart, who comes out of the piano.
It’s a shared story that will strike a chord (possibly a diminished seventh) with anyone who’s taken lessons in piano — or guitar, or singing, or hockey, or tennis, or … — and discovered they’re very good at it. Teddy and Richie are good enough to dream of being concert pianists, commanding the world’s stages, until the traumatic comeuppance moment, at age 17, when they come to realize that there’s some serious life distance being very good at something and being great.
What gives 2 Pianos 4 Hands its resonance and its poignance is that turning point, with its realization that the dream, and even the talent, aren’t enough. It’s about the odds-against factor built into greatness, and what you’d have to give up in order to have that dream come true. The matching scenes in which first Richie and Teddy receive the bad news, from a jazz school and a music conservatory respectively, are genuinely touching.
In the play, the actors take turns as kid and cocky teen versions of Teddy (McDonald) and Richie (McGloin) and the adults — incessantly nagging parents, a hilarious succession of teachers with amazing accents and opposing instructions about everything, adjudicators, examiners, conservatory principals — in their lives. And McDonald and McGloin turn in sparky and resourceful comic performances, in both idiosyncratic cameos and in dramatic scenes. And that’s in addition to demonstrating major musical chops.
The story arc follows a couple of 10-year-old piano nerds through the aggro of practising when your friends are outside playing, parental intervention, the tension of competition.
As for the latter, the Kiwanis Festival holds a special place in the nightmares of millions. Here, it’s led, hilariously, by McDonald as a morosely officious oldster announcing “Class 4,561, ‘Duet, 11-and-under,” to wit 67 pairs of children playing exactly the same piece, and lasting four hours. (Question to self: how did my parents survive it? Answer: by smoking outside). A fracas ensues on the piano bench, amusingly, as Teddy freezes and Richie fumes during a disastrous duet performance of In The Hall Of The Mountain King.
It’s built into the experience of 2 Pianos 4 Hands that both Dykstra and Greenblatt gave up music at 17 and instead found stellar careers in theatre as actors and directors. Edmonton audiences know Dykstra, the artistic director of Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol, as well as the creator of the musical Evangeline. In a curious coincidence, both Dykstra and McMillan, the actor who plays him in 2 Pianos 4 Hands, have had experience pounding the keys as Jerry Lee Lewis, the former in the musical Fire and the latter in the Mayfield’s production of Million Dollar Quartet.
That’s the thing about music, as you’ll reflect when you see 2 Pianos 4 Hands (and you should, it’s great fun). Music sticks with you. I remember Tommy Banks reminding me once in an interview that however aggravating practising was, you’ll never meet anyone who took piano lessons and quit who doesn’t say they wish they’d kept it up.
2 Pianos 4 Hands
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Created by: Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt
Directed by: Tom Frey
Starring: Jefferson McDonald, Matthew McGloin
Running: through Oct. 23
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca