— Richard Greenblatt (left) and Ted Dykstra (right).
2 PIANOS 4 HANDS
Sitting in theatres two or three nights a week, I often get to watch hugely talented people singing, dancing or acting at levels I could never reach. I think to myself, “Oh if only I had kept up those lessons as a kid—or as an adult—and practiced longer and harder!” (I rarely think, “Oh if only I had some natural talent!”) I’m sure lots of people who frequent live performance experience similar mixed feelings of admiration, envy and regret.
If you’re one of them, especially if you’ve ever taken piano lessons, I hesitate to recommend that you see 2 Pianos 4 Hands. It’s by and about Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt who gave up potential careers as classical pianists because, apparently, they weren’t good enough. So instead they became extremely successful actors and directors. Yet they also remain extraordinarily accomplished pianists who perform jaw-dropping feats at the keyboard with a casual ease that makes you hate them, the show-offs. No, I mean, admire them. Anyway, it doesn’t seem fair.
Dykstra and Greenblatt use the show as a means to examine their own love-hate relationships with the piano and to ask their own questions about fairness. Was it fair that their parents bullied them into practicing so long and hard when the other boys were outside playing hockey and living normal lives? Fair that Richard’s father tried to make his son live out his own failed attempts at mastering the instrument? Fair that, after committing so much of their childhood and adolescence to the piano (spoiler alert!), the boys were told they didn’t have the right stuff to take their dreams to the next level?
The show as a whole is much more lighthearted and funny than I’m suggesting here. Dykstra and Greenblatt are reminiscent of Victor Borge, the Danish piano master who became a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show by turning his talent into impressive comic schtick. Taking us chronologically through a version of their lives, from their first lessons as young kids to their adolescent frustrations and triumphs at talent shows to their young adult accomplishments and the moments when their ambitions come to screeching halts, they show us the ridiculous side of musical education.
Dykstra, especially, is a wonderful comic actor, whether in the role of long-suffering Sister Loyola, hopeless little Rich Greenblatt’s first teacher, or the put-upon moderator of the Kiwanis competition in which 67 pairs of 11-year-olds play the same score, or decrepit Signor Scarlatti who encourages the more mature Greenblatt to play his arpeggios with one hand to impress the chicks.
Each of the performers provides entertaining versions of his younger selves while the other plays his parent or teacher, and in a particularly funny scene the two would-be teen prodigies practice for a duet recital together, baiting and elbowing and pushing each other off the piano bench.
Then there’s the music: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and other greats, not to mention snippets of Billy Joel and Elton John, plus a very cool jazz version of “My Funny Valentine,” all played with matter-of-fact aplomb on the two magnificent grand pianos that comprise the set.
Cleverly weaving serious autobiographical themes with adept comic performance and startling, bravura piano playing, 2 Pianos 4 Hands has become one of Canadian theatre’s most successful shows, with over 4000 performances to more than two million people since its 1996 Toronto debut. Dykstra and Greenblatt brought it to the Playhouse in 1997 and are back now at the Stanley on what is advertised as their final tour. Even if you end up hating these guys, you won’t want to miss it.