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Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.Cylla von Tiedemann

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  • Title: 2 Pianos, 4 Hands
  • Created, performed and directed by: Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt
  • Company: David Mirvish presents a Marquis Entertainment and Talking Fingers production
  • Venue: Royal Alexandra Theatre
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to July 17, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks required.

Critics Pick

2 Pianos, 4 Hands, twenty-six years already?

Yes, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s hit double act – a poignant comedy about pursuing the dreams of becoming a classical pianist and then giving it up – has been around for as many years as there are letters in the alphabet. Chromatically, you might say it’s entered its third octave on the keyboard.

Now, a decade after a “farewell tour,” the two musician-actors who created the material before handing it off to casts all around the world are giving their all to it one more time at the Royal Alexandra Theatre as part of the Mirvish Productions season.

If either has developed arthritis over the years, it doesn’t show in their duelling renditions – both comic and genuinely accomplished, at least to a layman’s ears – of sonatas and rondos and preludes by Bach, Chopin and Mozart on a pair of grand pianos.

2 Piano, 4 Hands is that rare Canadian show that producers knew was going to be a blockbuster from its first workshop. Unusually, Dykstra and Greenblatt had an 18-month tour of the country in place even before the first production at the Tarragon Theatre in April of 1996. Their subsequent success includes healthy runs off-Broadway and on the West End and a tour of Japan.

2 Piano, 4 Hands is that rare Canadian show that producers knew was going to be a blockbuster from its first workshop.Cylla von Tiedemann

The conceit is simple: We follow Ted and Richard, two young piano players, from their early lessons to the moment where they come to the realization that they are not going to be professional concert pianists.

This involves the two actors shifting back and forth between playing versions of themselves as kids and teens – and playing a revolving door of piano instructors from the neighbourhood to the conservatory (all of whom, in a brilliant running gag, are dismissive of their predecessors).

Dykstra’s quickie Chekhovian portraits of Kiwanis Music Festival adjudicators, jazz music professors and drunk piano-bar patrons are truly sublime, instantly recognizable, funny as heck; Greenblatt is more of a blunt instrument as an actor, but definitely knows how to wring all the laughs out of a bit of physical comedy.

There’s a yin-yang to the pair of performers – a sort of meta-competition between them – that has always fuelled the energy of the piece, and it remains now.

The first act of 2 Pianos, 4 hands has some comic scenes that are now as classic as any Victor Borge routine.

Richard learning the order of the flats exposes just how pointless the common mnemonic is as a memory aid (is it Father Charles or Charles’ father?), while Ted learning about time signatures contains a layer of metaphysics that could make it stand on its own in an evening of David Ives plays.

“Didn’t your last teacher make sure you understood the concept of time?” says Mr. Berkoff. (It’s a question that could also be asked of Mirvish Productions and Marquis Entertainment, the producers who are billing this as a 25th anniversary production.)

Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s hit double act, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, has been around for 26 years.Kristina Ruddick

In the second act, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands shifts tone as immediately we see artistic dreams being interrupted by reality as Ted’s deeply felt rendition of Chopin’s Prelude No 15 in D flat major is talked over by a pedantic piano teacher.

The mini-trauma of the second act is relatable to anyone who pursued something with passion and discipline as a kid and then eventually gave it up – whether we’re talking about the harpsichord or hockey.

In this new production, Dykstra and Greenblatt have made a couple of alterations to the text that are distracting. The show’s timeline’s always been elastic, and they’ve always been playing characters based on themselves, rather than themselves, but I was thrown off by, for instance, seventeen-year-old Richard trying to justify his abandonment of piano by saying people these days “get more satisfaction playing Minecraft” than listening to classic music.

It’s not like the original reference to Nintendo is impenetrable to audiences of 2022 – certainly no more so than the sight gag about Chariots of Fire that’s still included. Meanwhile, a line where young Ted and Richard express relief that the “eight-year-old Chinese girl” who beat the both of them at a music competition has moved out of town is better set in the past.

I don’t have anything against a rollicking victory lap, however I think there was a missed opportunity for these aging performers to risk a little and find a truly fresh angle on the show for their hometown audience – the way Dykstra did when he directed Billy Bishop Goes to War with its original performer Eric Peterson at Soulpepper back in 2009.

Incidentally, I found some of what I was looking for in Greenblatt’s new book about the history of the show, Two of the Best in the Neighbourhood. It’s a chatty chronicle that full of celebration but also regrets about how the two handled their success. There’s an honesty in those pages that now somehow feels missing from the ending of the show itself as written when performed by its creators. How about a sequel about dreams coming true called: Be Careful What You Wish For?