The musical comedy 2 Pianos 4 Hands – often referred to as 2P4H – premiered in Toronto in 1996 and has since become the most successful play in the history of Canadian theatre. It has traveled the world and continues to do so. By now it has been seen by millions. In fact, if you locate the show’s official website, you’ll discover it’s practically an industry. But there’s a reason, and it’s the best one: 2P4H is simply terrific. If you want to discover more music from great artists that are under the radar, https://musiccritic.com is the best place to go. It is never too late to learn more about music and making it.
Now, admittedly, going in, knowing that what you’re about to see is exactly what the title suggests – two guys at two pianos – may not sound altogether exciting, particularly if classical music isn’t necessarily to your taste, but don’t be fooled; there’s some wonderful theatre unfolding on the stage at Phoenix Theatre on McDowell Road and here’s why.
2P4H was written by musician/writer/directors Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt who wrote it for themselves. Even though it’s neither Dykstra nor Greenblatt we see at the Phoenix, that’s who the two characters are, known throughout as Richard and Teddy. Here they’re played by two very talented performers, Mark Anders and Michael Kary who between them play not only Richard and Teddy as youngsters, then teenagers, and finally as grown men, but also as everyone else who in some way contributed to both the boys’ upbringing and their musical training.
The credit for the original scenic concept is given to Scott Weldin, but here the set designer is Joel Birch and it’s a straight forward, uncomplicated blueprint consisting of two black shiny Steinways overlooked by the stern and not altogether approving looking busts of Bach and Beethoven with a central archway between them flanked by two open doorways. The whole thing is reminiscent of both a celestial no-man’s land for concert musicians and a room at London’s Wigmore Hall where recitals by deserving world renowned players is a daily event.
Entering the stage in tuxedos and immediately bowing to the audience, Anders and Kary proceed to their respective keyboards as though embarking on a full concert recital. Then the fun begins. The two men take us back to their character’s childhood where one becomes the pupil and the other the teacher. “Curve your fingers and lower your wrists at the same time, Teddy,” instructs Kary, who as this character affects a European foreign accent suggesting an almost perfect vocal impression of Steve Carell in Despicable Me. Then roles are reversed and Kary becomes the child pupil and Anders the instructor. What’s immediately evident is that not only are these two men accomplished musicians but as actors they both have that remarkable ability to become a slew of different characters in an instant, changing before our eyes without the need of props, wigs or makeup to suggest a difference. All they employ is a change of stance, body movement and voices to become another person, and best of all, those changes never come across as caricatures. It’s only when we see a silhouette of a complaining parent or when Kary becomes an elderly lady more interested in gossip than taking musical instruction from an adult Anders that a wig or a prop is used.
The richness of the show’s quality comes in the form of realization. Anyone who has ever taken a music lesson is well aware of the frustration of simply not getting it until that moment when you suddenly do. There’s a hilarious section when Kary becomes a French piano instructor instructing a youthful Anders to play his arpeggio with two hands instead of one. “When you make love to a woman do you only use one hand?” the Frenchman asks. Anders, as Teddy the boy, shakes his head. He has no clue. But when the young student takes the advice and uses both hands on the keyboard, a different sound, a different overall feeling emerges, and for the first time, the boy gets it. “Oh, yeah!” he exclaims as he plays.
But among the humor and the well observed moments of suddenly understanding something that at one time you couldn’t even imagine is drama, upset and disappointment. There comes a point in time when a different sort of realization emerges and when it comes it’s devastating. It’s knowing that no matter how hard you try, no matter how many hours you’ve invested, and no matter how convinced you are that you’re great, it’s the discovery that maybe you’re not, not really. Perhaps you can play the piano well, maybe you have the speed and the showbiz panache of a Liberace; maybe you can even spy Elton John and Billy Joel in the rearview mirror as you hurtle forward, playing with the confidence and ability of an expert musician, practicing for endless hours, sacrificing a normal childhood – “Star Trek is just starting,” or “No other kids have to do this” – and yet… to be that world renowned musician deserving of a performance at Wigmore Hall you’re told you’re just not good enough. The true sadness comes not so much with being told, but the realization that it’s actually true, and you know it.
2 Pianos 4 Hands is hugely enjoyable where, to this untrained ear, the piano playing throughout is first class. It’s one thing to be delighted to hear passages from Mozart, Grieg and Chopin, but when the players break into Bennie and the Jets, the Linus and Lucy Theme, a comical Chariots of Fire complete with slow-mo running, and finally an all-out burst of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire where the piano produces paper flames and even the busts of Bach and Beethoven turn away, the show is sublime.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website.