“2 Pianos 4 Hands” Has One Heart and a Lot of Soul

Richard Greenblatt & Ted Dykstra in 2P4H. Photo by Rick O'Brien

Richard Greenblatt & Ted Dykstra in 2P4H. Photo by Rick O'Brien

“Mirvish has a hell of a season lined up,” noted the bearded theatregoer in the seat beside me.

He has a point. When the weather outside is in the single digits, there must be a hell of a good reason for theatre patrons to leave the warm comfort of home and central heating in order to line up at the Panasonic Theatre at 651 Yonge Street, even with the queue spilling out onto the curb – and there is one. 2P4H. No, it isn’t a secret code, or if it is, it must spell out success. 2 Pianos 4 Hands or 2P4H is the phenomenally successful musical comedy created by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, arguably the most successful play in Canadian theatre history. After a fifteen-year run in nearly 200 cities around the world, the show is back for a final encore in Toronto, with an anniversary show in the city where the pair began their careers.

It’s a limited run – only from October 29 to November 20 – and this fact is made more obvious by the sight of scores of patrons crowding the Panasonic Theatre foyer, making the most of the engagement’s run at a space which appears much smaller than Mirvish’s other theatres, such as the Princess of Wales Theatre farther downtown. Inside the auditorium, however, the jet black interior acts like an acoustic jewellery box for the gem that is 2 Pianos 4 Hands.

The best way to describe the play is as a series of linked vignettes detailing the absurdity and comedy inherent in a lifelong obsession with music, or in this case, twin obsessions. With so much of the focus being on the music and the drama stirred up by 88 bichromatic piano keys, it makes sense that the art direction would call for simple, minimalist set pieces. The stage set is literally just two grand pianos set nose to nose with the piano stools on the far end of each and a pair of giant picture frames hanging in the background beside each piano. These serve as blank canvases upon which an array of lighting effects conveys location, emotion, mood, and the passage of time; and in a couple of hysterical scenes, the canvases are used to great effect portraying shadow-puppet versions of Dykstra and Greenblatt’s father and mother respectively.

Strung together between the musical numbers is an unfolding and mirroring story of two men, forced to practice piano for hours as boys, only to have a love for the music climb inside and take over every aspect of their beings as they grow older and begin to look for ways to make it as professional musicians.

The title of the play is 2 Pianos 4 Hands, but it might as well add, “And a Host of Other People,” because the story features multiple characters, all played by Dykstra and Greenblatt. These characters range from idiosyncratic music teachers to comically authoritarian parents to various weird and wonderful incarnations of themselves. In turns – often with switchovers of mere seconds – the two play whiny children, rivalrous teens, and cocky young men assured of their musical talent in the vacuum of the contest circuit, but unaware of the real test lying out in the uncaring world.

About halfway through the play, Dykstra’s father (played by Greenblatt, just as Dykstra played Greenblatt’s offstage mother) threatens to put a stop to the music that he once badgered his son to focus on, because he fears his son’s teacher is putting ideas in his head about becoming a professional musician instead of going to university and getting a degree “to fall back on.”

This scene is one of the surprisingly touching dramatic aspects of the play, which uses a form of humour that can easily be described as musical slapstick, yet which provides insight into the nature of family, relationships, and all-encompassing passions.

The play is a proven combination of unmistakable musical talent and pitch-perfect comedic timing, featuring a tapestry of classical music staples mixed in with irreverent pop melodies and rock n’ roll. In one scene of shared frustration with Chopin, the pianists switch from his “Rondo for Two Pianos, Four Hands in C Major” to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” then segue neatly into John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and follow improbably with the theme from The Young and the Restless.

Dykstra and Greenblatt share and switch up the acting and musical duties so fluidly that you’d think they were the same pianist if you weren’t looking at the stage. Their onstage chemistry crackles with fiery wit and clever, often innuendo-laden humour and speaks not of two actors in familiar roles, but two friends having a good time in front of an audience – and an appreciative one, at that. Applause broke out spontaneously after almost every scene, and by the end of the final performance (an impressive rendition of Bach’s “Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement”), the entire auditorium delivered a rousing standing ovation.

While delivering their bows at the end and after blowing a kiss to the balcony, Dykstra exclaimed, “Just wanted to say, we are so, so happy to be back.”

It appears that for Toronto theatregoers, the feeling is mutual.

Check out 2 Pianos 4 Hands at the Panasonic Theatre at 651 Yonge Street up until November 20, playing Wed-Sat at 8 p.m., and Wed, Sat, and Sun at 2 p.m.

For tickets and more information, click here.