Striking the right note

'2 Pianos 4 Hands' tells a tale of youthful ambition

First, a little heads-up: If you want to see TheatreWorks' production of "2 Pianos 4 Hands," you'll need to get your tickets soon. Seats have been selling briskly -- so briskly, in fact, that even before last Saturday's opening the company had already scheduled three additional performances to help meet demand.

The obvious question, now that the show has opened, is whether this demand is warranted.

Happily, the answer is an unequivocal yes. This is more than just a show for classical music fans, or for former piano students who remember being stuck indoors playing scales and études while their friends were outside playing freeze tag. It's a show for anyone who loves a good laugh, who appreciates virtuoso acting or who ever watched a childhood dream recede at the cusp of adulthood.

Described as semi-autobiographical, "2 Pianos 4 Hands" tells the story of two young Canadian piano prodigies named Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt. The show was written and originally performed in Toronto by two former piano prodigies named -- you guessed it -- Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt.

The real-life Dykstra and Greenblatt met in 1993. By then, both had given up the rigors of the concert pianist's path and were pursuing careers in theater, but they discovered that they shared many of the same experiences from their years in the competitive piano-recital circuit as children and young adults. Two years later, those experiences had become the foundation of a two-man show that the pair went on to perform across Canada, as well as in the U.S., England and Australia.

The fictionalized Ted and Richard -- played, respectively, by Darren Dunstan and Christopher Tocco in TheatreWorks' production -- meet earlier, as children, when their piano teachers pair the promising youngsters up for a Kiwanis-hosted duet competition. (When Ted freezes at the keyboard, leaving Richard to play both parts of a four-hand arrangement by Edvard Grieg, that competition turns into the comedic highlight of a very funny first act.)

But we meet Ted and Richard at an even younger age, at some of their earliest lessons. Tocco plays a roughly 6-year-old Richard, while Dunstan becomes Richard's teacher, the long-suffering Sister Loyola, who ends most of her lessons by announcing that she's going upstairs for a lie-down and that Richard should let himself out when he's done. Then, with only a change of positions and a subtle lighting change to mark the shift, Tocco becomes a hapless teacher trying to instill the rudiments of music theory and keyboard technique in an eager but largely clueless Ted.

The bulk of the show proceeds in this fashion -- a montage of lessons, reluctant practice sessions and increasingly rigorous exams -- with each actor playing the opposite character's parents, instructors and so forth. In addition to portraying Ted and Richard over a span of two decades, Dunstan and Tocco play more than a dozen additional roles between them, changing age, gender and nationality at the drop of a hat. Tocco is particularly good as a faculty member at a prestigious conservatory who savages Ted's admissions audition, and as a rambling middle-aged woman who comes to Ted for beginning piano lessons. Dunstan, in turn, is memorable as the ancient Mr. Scarlotti, who conducts Richard's lessons while lying flat on the floor, and as a cocktail bar loud-mouth who really, really wants to hear "Piano Man."

And just in case you're not impressed by actors who can play a dozen characters in the course of two hours, these actors also play more than a dozen classical piano pieces: sonatas, preludes and rondos by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Liszt and more, as well as contemporary pieces by folks like Elton John, Vince Guaraldi and John Lennon. Neither of these men is a professional concert pianist, but they share enough of Dykstra and Greenblatt's early experience -- years of lessons providing technical facility and a familiarity with the classical repertoire -- that they handle this music with the requisite degree of polish.

Credit also accrues to director Tom Frey and scenic/lighting designer Steve Lucas, whose involvement ensures a continuity with previous productions of the same show. Lucas designed the original Toronto production, and he has brought the same elegant, performer-centered aesthetic to the stage in Mountain View. Frey, in addition to directing the show for numerous companies, has logged nearly 800 performances as Richard and understudied Ted Dykstra in an early-2000s Toronto revival. Neither man is out to fix what ain't broke, choosing instead to recreate the carefully honed magic that has made this show a worldwide sensation.

What: "2 Pianos 4 Hands," presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through Feb. 8, Tuesday-Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., plus additional performances Feb. 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 15 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $19-$74.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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