Thursday 21 March 2013

2 Pianos, 4 Hands should amuse even R&B fans

Vertical integration is not just a business thing. It can work in theatre, too, given the right circumstances. As it is in ACT's latest Stanley Theatre production that was written by, directed by and stars Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt. 

2P4H was conceived some 17 years ago as a fictionalized diary about each man's classical piano teachers during their fetched-up years. Albeit in real life some eight years apart in age, on stage their characters spend a decade together competing with and against one another. First as daydreaming flummoxes, but ultimately as highly-skilled though not-pro-level performers, just "best in the neighbourhood". How many suburban hockey kids fit that description, too? More than not. Dreamers of all description -- whether astronaut or movie star or rock god wannabes -- will relate to this tale.

We watch these two nascent hotshots of Chopin, Bach, and Mozart from their early bristles and squawks and cacophony through grammar school. That takes up most of Act 1. Gradually each becomes a bit o.c. and nerdy as hours-&-hours of practice consume them during the pimple years. Right through high school they act out a sequence of semi-autobiographical skits as both their teachers and the music get tougher and tougher on them, not to mention the parents. This is the stuff of Act 2.

In the end their dreams of stardom, like spring flowers in June, droop and drop altogether: Dykstra is rejected for Conservatory training to become the next Glenn Gould because he's "undisciplined" while Greenblatt mistakes a trilly Ferrante & Teicher version of My Funny Valentine he wrote as jazz. The man waran't impressed. No brudda. No Harlem jazz school for him. 

So Greenblatt tries his hand at cocktail lounge entertainer -- one of the funniest and truest bits doing Billy Joel's Piano Man under the shouts of a bellicose drunk. For Dykstra, he tries his hand at teaching piano basics to suburban moms at the ABC Piano School. They simply use him and their weekly lesson time to confess their life's misery.

This somewhat melancholy fall from grace for both of them as overachieving Kiwanis competition prodigies has, however, been punctuated throughout by great guffaws. Indeed it's the comedy acting that almost upstages their exceptional skills on the twin Yamaha grand pianos -- particularly Dykstra's facial contortions, timing and wonderfully wimpy groans. 

In stage argot this is a "two-hander" as Dykstra and Greenblatt are the only two performers. But they each toggle back-&-forth as imagined student and teacher for one another. Touchingly they capture the foibles of the kids who are forced to take these bloody piano lessons in the first place, particularly the daily grind of practices they hate. But equally well their personna capture the peccadilloes of their long-suffering teachers. Dykstra's rendition of poor old Sister Loyola and her perpetual migraine at Greenblatt's childish keyboard excruciations is priceless comic stuff. 

And Greenblatt playing Dykstra's belligerent old man is cleverly wrought. He orates a note-perfect "not while you live in my house" speech to Teddy whose grades are slipping. Slipping simply because by age 16 Teddy's tumescent only about the piano -- not about girls or sports or anything else -- piano is all he does or thinks or breathes or phantasizes. It's a speech nearly every one of us has both heard and given in our lifetimes when a teen seems headed astray in some way or other.  

Script meets life by virtue of Dykstra and Greenblatt having done the 2 Pianos, 4 Hands schtick so long -- 900 performances in the past decade-&-a-half. They are symbiotic, like piano-man twins in their comic and personal turns on stage. Being in each other's skin, almost literally, is what lends the performance its poignance.

The 20 or so mostly classical pieces are played in snippets as an extension of the running dialogue occurring on stage. One needn't be a classical music fan to enjoy them, though having some familiarity with the genre doesn't hurt. 

Production designer Steve Lucas creates a set just right for the music and dialogue : only outsize picture frames adorn the stage behind the nose-to-nose pianos. Within them are shot various home-style windows -- to represent the different teachers and venues as well as chiaroscuro screens behind which Greenblatt and Dykstra mimic mom and dad nattering and scolding the boys to practice harder. All worked adequately well until the final scene when the sunset-red and puffy clouds in the closing J.S. Bach Concerto in D minor sequence seemed meh -- a bit casual and indifferent and unfocused in purpose. 

Background notes :  The Dykstra-Greenblatt collaboration has been performed literally thousands of times, both by these two and nearly 100 others in local companies. ACT tots up some 5,000 performances of the script at 200 theatres in eight countries on five continents to nearly 2,000,000 viewers. The current production is part of a farewell tour of the show playing Ottawa, Vancouver, and Edmonton before Dykstra and Greenblatt, at least, retire the work for themselves as performers. If numbers count, this is a Don't miss it ! event.

Helpfully, the New York Times  describes the musical format of "two hands" piano-playing thus : 

"In the 19th century orchestral and chamber works were often transcribed for piano duet so that those who couldn't attend concerts might still hear the latest symphony or opera. These duets were considered more suitable for the parlor than the concert hall, where two virtuoso egos would be uncomfortably squashed together on one piano bench [Ed : the two-butt, one-bench scene by Dykstra/Greenblatt was great slapstick]. Four-hand two-piano works had more appeal for the reigning superstars, even allowing them to indulge in some lively onstage one-up-manship [Ed : which D/G do repeatedly and deliciously throughout the ACT production]."  (NYT description by Vivien Schweitzer, Feb. 16, 2010.)


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