2 PIANOS 4 HANDS, getting its Houston regional premiere at Stages Repertory Theatre, is quite possibly the single most successful Canadian export. The show had humble workshop beginnings in 1994 and has blossomed into an international phenomenon. The success of the “recital interrupted by a play,” as actor/director Tom Frey puts it, has to be how relatable it is any member of the audience.
With humor and heart, 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS conceived and written by Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, tells the story of two boys and their dreams of concert pianist stardom. The cast of two performs countless roles, ranging from hard-to-please parents to awkward oddball piano teachers and everything in between. The plot follows Richard and Ted across 15 years of piano instruction, recitals, auditions for schools, performing in piano bars, teaching students of their own, and the realization that not everybody who aspires to be a famous musician becomes one.
Who has not worked hard to achieve a dream and later had to swallow the bitter pill of a dream lost? This authentic and original play charms its way into the heart of the audience, tickling their ribcages as skillfully as the actors tickle the keys of the two pianos.
Tom Frey dons multiple hats in this production, showcasing his talents as director, playing Ted among other characters, and collaborating on scenic design. This production marks Tom Frey’s tenth time to direct the show, and he directs this production with gusto and pizzazz. He never allows his cast of two to miss a beat or drop a line, moving the show along with innumerable laughs and a comfortable speed. In fact, a majority of the 120 minutes feel lively and fresh, rarely lapsing into monotony. It’s only towards the end of the second act, for about a five-minute period, where the concept of the show and its humor seems to become a smidge tiresome—ultimately feeling a bit repetitive. Yet, the spirited and pristinely delivered ending duet erases any flaw from the memory, ending the show on a laudable high note.
As an actor, Tom Frey is sensational. He has been seen in over 700 performances in 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS, with nearly 500 of them as Ted. He has perfect comedic timing and can contort his face in ways that Jim Carrey can only dream of. In all sincerity, Tom Frey makes reducing audiences into riotous laughter seem easy. Moreover, he is a skilled character actor and can switch from hilarious portrait to uproarious caricature in an instant, delighting the audience while keeping them on their toes. Add in his virtuosic piano skills, and it seems that he is playing the role he was born to play. Whether portraying Ted, a nun, a drunken guy at a bar, or any other character, Tom Frey commands attention in the best way possible and thoroughly entertains the audience the whole evening.
Jeffrey Rockwell, portraying Richard and others, has also been previously associated with the show, and is reprising the role for Stage’s production. His piano talents and musicianship are remarkable. While laughing and chortling, I was especially impressed when he delivered the most straight and by-the-book rendition of “My Funny Valentine” imaginable. I couldn’t help but wonder how many hours of practice were necessary to play that piece with such an even tempo, even spacing between notes, and no jazzy flourishes. Jeffrey Rockwell’s acting chops are enjoyable as well. He elicits laughs and many smiles throughout the evening.
Scenic Concept by Tom Frey, Michael Mullins, and Josh Morrison is simplistic but perfect. The two Steinway & Sons pianos are front and center in the design and fantastic to look at. The golden pillars behind them are beautiful and versatile, never taking away from the scene and adequately disappearing into the background when needed.
Furthermore, the lighting design by David Gibson is fantastic and wonderfully portrays location with logos being provided by masterfully utilized gobos. Color choices are perfect as well, and they deliciously compliment mood and setting.
Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Richard Greenblatt & Ted Dykstra’s 2 PIANOS 4 HANDS is a lot of fun to take in and experience. The humor in the show carries it from moment to moment; yet, the immaculate and remarkable piano playing is what really mesmerizes and delights audiences. Overall, it is a family friendly show with a few instances of innuendo and language that may make the show inappropriate for children under the age of 10 or so. With the talent behind the keys at Stages Repertory Theatre, it is easy to see why the show is such an international sensation.