An amazing thing happens a few minutes into 2 Pianos, 4 Hands: After the show's co-stars, both of whom are seated at glossy grand pianos, have performed a complicated duet, one of them begins banging on the keyboard in a perfect imitation of a tiny child -- a character he captures without the help of makeup or costuming. It's Mark Anders' posture, and the thrumming of his finger on the keys, that transforms him into a tyke just discovering music. Soon, co-star Carl J. Danielsen joins him, another kid on another piano, and they take us quickly through a growing-up montage without ever budging from their chairs. When the duo leaps suddenly into a rousing chorus of "Heart and Soul," the audience hollers with spontaneous laughter, and we're captivated for the rest of the evening.
If the show never quite achieves these heights again, it does -- as directed by Bruce K. Sevy for Arizona Theatre Company -- remain hugely entertaining for nearly every one of its 90-plus minutes. Part musical comedy, part chamber concert, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands tells the story of two talented young would-be concert pianists whose lives are lived behind their keyboards. When we meet them, they're boys who are reluctant to practice. We watch them fall in love with the instrument, and eventually become obsessed with it, then set out in search of stardom, only to run headlong into their own also-ran status by story's end. Seventeen-year-old Ted ends up teaching middle-aged housewives how to find middle C, while Rich winds up covering Billy Joel songs and dodging drunks at a piano bar.
Although the performers are supposedly portraying the authors, I'm guessing their story isn't entirely autobiographical. Nor is it particularly revealing about the men behind the musicians -- the scenes all concern their lives as pianists. They experience joy through music, endure pain through cruel competition and endless hours of practice, and find friendship among eccentric instructors -- the point being that it's the piano that makes them whole; nothing else about them has the same import. Their quest for excellence and their failure to achieve their dream is a universal message, the piano its metaphor.
You have to have had at least a few music lessons to appreciate a couple of the jokes -- I didn't get the one about the floppy elbow, but my theater date is an accomplished pianist who explained it to me -- but most of the gags are idiot-proof. Anyone can appreciate the sonic punch line of the medley of cheesy pop piano hits ("Nadia's Theme," "Chariots of Fire," "The Theme From Cheers"), played by each boy when he should be practicing, and the caricatures are written to please. (Unless, that is, you're offended by broad ethnic stereotypes -- almost every one of the boys' instructors embodies one embarrassing ethnic cliché or another.)
Director Sevy, himself a classically trained pianist, should be lauded for finding two fellows who can play comedy as well as a note-perfect performance of Bach's D minor Concerto. Anders and Danielsen achieve each of the wide cast of characters -- a parent, a piano teacher, an admissions panelist -- with the aid of only a scarf, a cane, a pair of cat-eye glasses. These amusing quick-change transformations keep the show moving and offset the character contrasts between the boys, which are occasionally too pat: One's father thinks he doesn't practice enough, while the other's father wants him to clock more time away from the piano; one boy can't gain entry into a prestigious classical academy, while the other can't get accepted into a shabby jazz school.
The music is given a greater character arc, growing from the simple melody of "My Little Birch Canoe" to Vladimir Horowitz's heady arrangement of Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. The score, along with Don Darnutzer's vibrant lighting, is reason enough to see 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, a tinkly triumph played to near perfection by a pair of virtuoso performers.
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