2 Pianos, 4 Hands at Stages Repertory Theatre: A Rich Comedic and Emotional Experience

See our interview with the play's Tom Frey and Jeffrey Rockwell.

The set-up:

Two talented Canadian pianists and actors (Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra) who had trained for careers as classical musicians have created a play with music that defies description. It uses humor, musical ability and insightful memories of childhood piano lessons to delineate a world of ambition, frustrations, hard work, and responsibilities shared or shirked, all recollected and described with unflagging energy.

The execution:

All this is accomplished with impeccable taste; the performance is class itself - even the pratfalls are done in formal dress. Stages' Yeager Theater is a perfect setting: a stage large enough for two grand pianos yet intimate enough to keep the large audience close to the performers. Tom Frey plays one of the creators, Ted, and Jeffrey Rockwell plays Richard, the other, and both Frey and Rockwell are skilled pianists themselves, as the two hours amply document. They wore tails, and I felt under-dressed; all the class was on the stage.

The closest comparison is to Victor Borge's one-man show, but 2 Pianos is totally different, though just as much fun. The actors alternate playing tutor, parent and student in a series of vignettes of piano lessons, painful at the time but amusing in recollection. My favorite teacher, played by Frey, was an elderly maestro who taught while supine on the floor, who advised the 17-year-old student that playing an arpeggio with one hand would get him chicks because chicks found it manly. Frey is not only an excellent actor, he is also a deft mime - his facial expressions and eloquent gestures enhanced the humor enormously. Rockwell matches Trey in musical ability and acting proficiency, but it is Trey who has the moves.

This event is definitely a comedy, with some poignant moments. We meet a seriously un-hip classical musician whose dream is to be a jazz pianist, a child of ten who doesn't want to practice, and a musical nerd of 17 who doesn't want to stop. We see musical exercises, grueling entrance and graduation tests of a tyro musician's expertise and "ear." Even if you've personally never endured the rigors of piano lessons, you will still savor the earnest drive of youth, the stardust in the eyes of young performers, and the agony of rejection. This is a play about human nature, and it delivers home truths without pulling its punches. Forget Victor Borge - this is Chorus Line for the ears.

But much funnier. The humor is generally sophisticated, though some slapstick is thrown in. A brief glimpse of Jerry Lee Lewis is brilliant. An illuminated upstage screen changes colors to match the mood, and permits some shadow-figure humor. I'm delighted that Greenblatt and Dykstra sat down to create this musical pastiche, which has been a huge success in Canada, New York and other U.S. cities, and around the world. This is the regional premiere, and it is directed with pace and split-second timing by the actor playing Ted, Tom Frey. But Rockwell has the best line in his bio: "So much music, so little time, so few fingers." You get to see a comedy, and you get credit for going to a concert as well.

The verdict:

Adroit writing, skilled performers and an inventive recollection of childhood and adult musical travails merge into a fresh and invigorating comedy, laced with insights and delivering a rich comedic and emotional experience.

2 Pianos, 4 Hands continues through October 28 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527--0123 or contact the company website.

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