Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hitting some wrong notes

It's mystifying, sometimes, when one sees a show that's been running for a long time, is a popular favorite and one's reaction is "hmm, where's the beef?" I had that reaction at the Canadian show 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which recently played its umpteenth engagement in Toronto.

In this case, it's literally a two-hander, written and performed by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, this time at the Panasonic Theatre, about their piano careers -- or rather, the piano careers that never quite got going. Originally produced in 1996, it has, according to the program, played in 10 countries and 200 cities. Since I studied piano for ten years as a young person, then returned to it in 2005 as an adult and continue to play today, I was eager to catch up.

Growing up in the U.S., I had never encountered the Royal Conservatory exams, but as an adult living in Canada, I decided to go through them and am now aiming at level 6. In the 22 years I spent in Toronto, it seemed that 2 Pianos, 4 Hands was perennially playing somewhere. So I was primed for fun. 

There is a simple set -- two grand pianos, nose to nose, and a backdrop that consists of two video screens enclosed by huge picture frames. The first disappointment was that Dykstra and Greenblatt, who also are credited as directors for this production, made relatively little, unimaginative use of those video screens -- window panes to denote a house, etc, but the screens sat blank for much of the show.

They play all the characters, from themselves as kids going through the usual practice agony and lessons ("it sounded better at home" - who hasn't said that?) to teachers and examiners.  

As kids, the two do not seem to be especially talented piano students, which I found a wee bit puzzling as the adults onstage possessed serious piano chops. Their teachers -- especially Sister Loyola -- run the gamut from encouragement to exasperation. The boys persist and enter the Kiwanis Music Festival, a venerable Canadian institution that encompasses local, regional and national competitions. (Canadians love competitive festivals. They exist for music, choirs, community theater -- and auto repair, for all I know -- and more can be found about this national characteristic here.)

The funniest character, for me, was Ed, a long-suffering emcee at the Kiwanis festival who announces in a dead tone that "67 children will all be playing the same piece."

As they progress in their musical studies, they try to take the next step. Dykstra applies to the Royal Conservatory and Greenblatt to a jazz faculty -- but they slam against reality. Dykstra has gotten by on an easy facility at the keyboard, but the conservatory interviewer sees through his facade and bluntly tells him he'd have to work a lot harder to be top-notch. Greenblatt's version of jazz smacks too much of classical training, and his interviewer basically tells him he just doesn't have the soul for it.

Greenblatt gets work in a piano bar ... Dykstra does some teaching ... and the continuation of their story, as one can read from their program bios, is that both went on to busy, full lives as well-known theater artists -- acting (in some roles demanding musical talent), directing, writing, mentoring.

But the acting on display in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands is more of the hammy variety (see photo), with a little Victor Borge-style kidding around at the beginning. And one small question: how the heck could two musicians misspell the names of Richard Rodgers and Edvard Grieg in the music credits for the show?

Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra in 2 Pianos 4 Hands
The show consists of a series of vignettes, but there isn't much character development and there are such hoary jokes as the teacher with the foreign accent mispronouncing English words - the same word, several times.

One of the few negative reviews the show has gotten came from the New York Times in 1997, when it played the Promenade Theatre in New York. Acknowledging their skill, reviewer Peter Marks sharply noted that "they never make it clear what the music has meant to them," so it's hard to feel much when they lose their dreams of becoming concert artists. The full review is here

I kept waiting for the play to catch fire, to scale the heights of musical joy, to give me some insight into the despair of being found wanting at the very thing you desire so much (a feeling with which I am all too acquainted when it comes to music). But what I saw was two pleasant guys with a very enjoyable amount of piano talent reminiscing about their young years in music and ending the show with what I thought was a boring arrangement of Bach's lovely Sheep May Safely Graze. I was under-whelmed.


  1. As a fellow Canadian, I thank you for this candid review of this perennial favourite back home, which I, too, should see!

    Although you seemed entertained by the show - the performers are a funny duo - I can see that it could leave the audience wanting more. Reminiscing is fine, but where was the "thrill of victory, the agony of defeat"?

    Is the show quintessentially Canadian in the characters' acceptance of their lot in life: that they didn't become the musical virtuosos they had aspired to be; that they tried their best and that was good enough? Something to be said for reconciling oneself to reality, but perhaps not so thrilling a stage play as it could have been. Or perhaps more insight into how they arrived at that place would have bolstered their message.

    The choice of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze to end the show is so interesting! That selection is the best known part of a larger Bach piece called the Hunting Cantata, which begins: "The lively hunt is all my heart's desire..." Your review of this show asks: "Where is the hunt, and where the desire?"

    1. Very perceptive, Brian C.

      I'm not sure that their acceptance of their lot is quintessentially Canadian; what I think is Canadian is that they seem to be content with "pleasant."

      Contrast this with a story such as the film "Mr. Holland's Opus," about a teacher who always wanted to be a composer. Sometimes he's not very nice to the people around him, but the writer wants to show his frustration and anger at his thwarted ambitions.

      What also pricks the bubble a little in terms of "2 Pianos" is that both of these men have had such successful careers - admittedly not as concert pianists, but still.

      Thanks for the expansion of the Bach reference! Most apt.