“Keyboard Kapers” would serve more specifically than 2 Pianos, 4 Hands as a moniker for the Toronto-born, world-traveled entertainment making its regional premiere at Stages Repertory Theatre.
The show strings together a collection of comedy routines rooted in the travails of training for a career as a concert pianist. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, the show’s creators and original performers, have unified the antics as a semi-autobiographical chronicle of their own struggles and disappointments from age 4 through adulthood, as they advance from recital partners to college competitors.
We see Ted and Richard coping with clueless parents; outrageously eccentric teachers; the pressures of lessons, exams, and competitions; and the endless practice, practice, practice. The two performers also play parents, teachers, conservatory admission officers and all the others the protagonists encounter.
Along the way, they play sizable chunks of classical repertoire relatively straight: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg. About half the time, this gives way to musical high jinks and general horsing around. In the opening bit, the two prepare to play but are repeatedly delayed as one insists on switching pianos, then on switching benches, and so forth. In another bit, sharing the same keyboard, they gradually surrender to playful aggression with bops on the head, shoving each other off the bench, and such. At another point, fed up with practice, they lapse into a medley featuring snippets of every piece so familiar (“Chariots of Fire”) that it’s become an elevator-music cliché. They needn’t do anything but quote each over-familiar theme to prompt a laugh.
Since it premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1996, 2P4H, as it’s often called, has played to more than 2 million people in more than 150 cities on five continents — plainly, a successful crowd-pleaser, its popularity with theaters enhanced by the fact the show is compact and easy to produce.
Anyone who’s ever taken piano lessons or even noodled out Chopsticks or Heart and Soul (and don’t think those aren’t referenced early in the proceedings) will identify with much of this show.
But while it’s lightly amusing, 2P4H also is fairly repetitious and too often settles for the easy, obvious laugh.
2P4H gains validity as a play chiefly for a stretch in Act 2, in consecutive scenes of each guy forced to face the fact that, all their efforts notwithstanding, neither is sufficiently exceptional to make a career as a classical pianist. Those scenes have more substance and point than the rest of the show. Otherwise, 2P4H is a bit too slight to get overly enthused about, as theater.
Tom Frey and Jeffrey Rockwell, who perform the show at Stages, definitely sell it as a comedy/concert act. Veterans of hundreds of performances of 2P4H all over the map, they ought to be good at it — and they are. Both are accomplished musicians and even more accomplished comic actors.
Each persuasively portrays his main character from squirmy little kid to disillusioned grown-up, and each neatly delineates the many other character vignettes from nagging parents to surly conservatory administrators. Though Rockwell may overdo the mugging here and there, both are adept at the comedy shtick — the business, gestures and pratfalls that give some bits a touch of the Three (in this case Two) Stooges.
Frey, who’s directing the show for the 10th time, has staged it just as shrewdly, with sharply defined movement and smart pacing.
Maybe the best description is this: 2P4H is like a cross between what comedian/pianist Victor Borge’s act would have been had he been twins, and a Hollywood movie starring Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey as goofballs forced to impersonate classical pianists.
2 Pianos, 4 Hands
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 28
Where: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway
Tickets: $21-$49; 713-527-0123