Highly Polished ‘2 Pianos 4 Hands’ is a Crowd-Pleasing Summertime Show at Laguna Playhouse

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Jefferson McDonald and Matthew McGloin star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “2 PIANOS 4 HANDS,” directed by Tom Frey, and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Rumley

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

The title of the musical stage show “2 Pianos 4 Hands” is undoubtedly tantalizing, its potential heightened by your first glimpse of the stage.

At Laguna Playhouse, that means seeing two gorgeous concert grand pianos facing each other, their lids removed to expose the strings and hammers.

Often referred to as “Two Pianos Four Hands,” the 1996 show tells of the lives of Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt primarily from ages 10 to 17 – key, formative years during which each is immersed in his piano studies, moving from the drudgeries of endless practice to toying with the idea of carving careers and lives as classically trained pianists.

“2 Pianos” has thus far been seen in Southern California with others in the roles Dykstra and Greenblatt originally wrote for themselves. The show was in Laguna Playhouse’s 2005-2006 season with performers Tom Frey and Richard Carsey. This time around, Frey is directing actor-pianists Matthew McGloin and Jefferson McDonald, the trio having previously teamed for productions at theaters in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and elsewhere.

McGloin portrays Greenberg and McDonald plays Dykstra at various ages – primarily as children and teens but also, in the show’s classical concert-style opening and closing scenes, as mature adults.

The actors, though, also fill all of the script’s roles, from supportive yet nagging parents to a parade of piano teachers, adjudicators, competition directors and others who populate the world of classical piano music from the perspective of a young would-be classical pianist.

Jefferson McDonald and Matthew McGloin star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “2 PIANOS 4 HANDS,” directed by Tom Frey, and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Rumley

The script gives us Richard’s dad (played by McDonald) challenging him to “seriously commit to classical music” for the next seven years (till he’s 17), while late in the play, we see an intense face-off between Ted and his dad (McGloin), who insists Ted attend a university so as to have “a back-up career” in case he fails as a musician – a possibility Ted refuses to acknowledge.

A key dramatic focal point arrives late in the evening in which McGloin’s Richard has a stunning epiphany. Classical music, he asserts, is an archaic musical form toward which the public is, at best, apathetic. At age 17, he has already decided it’s time to find another path for his life.

The show features some 14 pieces from the classical repertory, including works by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg and Schubert, yet it also showcases a healthy dose of non-classical 20th century music, of which a Greenblatt original (“By the Stream”) is just one example.

A medley of pop music late in the play shows the pianists’ versatility while giving the audience some familiar favorites of broad appeal such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” theme, Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” theme, the latter leading to McDonald’s Ted cutting loose as Jerry Lee Lewis banging out “Great Balls of Fire.”

Jefferson McDonald (on floor) and Matthew McGloin (at piano) star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “2 PIANOS 4 HANDS,” directed by Tom Frey, and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. PHOTO CREDIT: Mikki Schaffner

“2 Pianos” is long on delving into the personalities of its creators, exploring the rigors of classical piano studies and emphasizing the toll that endeavor can take on boys who might be sequestered behind closed doors, alone at the piano, but whose minds can’t help but drift toward their friends’ more boisterous outdoor activities.

Musicians (pianists or otherwise) in the audience will find certain aspects of the show utterly fascinating, such as the demands of being able to hear two tones struck on the piano and correctly identifying the key signature or hearing a chord and being able to parse it and state the specific, exactly correct chord name.

Where “2 Pianos” tends to come up short is in living up to its title – or even, for that matter, delivering more of the immortal classical piano literature upon which you’d expect it to focus. Most of the featured selections receive scant stage time – a page or two here and there but even more often, just a few bars that essentially amount to an excerpt.

Yet there’s no denying that Dykstra and Greenblatt designed the show to balance its musical content – each pianist’s time at the piano – with its comedy, those moments where we can’t help but laugh.

It must also be noted that many of the non-musical portions are more starkly dramatic than comedic. How can you laugh at the angst of a teen or pre-teen boy wrestling with his career choices, struggling with self-esteem or locking horns with parents who don’t seem to understand?

Jefferson McDonald and Matthew McGloin star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “2 PIANOS 4 HANDS,” directed by Tom Frey, and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Rumley

There’s no denying, either, that “2 Pianos 4 Hands” has been a success everywhere it has played, whether with its creators portraying themselves or with actors like McGloin and McDonald in the roles of “Richard” and “Ted.”

Anyone reviewing “2 Pianos” must point out that Laguna Playhouse has mounted a superb staging, checking off every aspect necessary to bring a professional production to its patrons. Frey and his stars deserve praise for investing so much of themselves into the show. By the same token, they’re not responsible for basic shortcomings born of the minds and creative imaginations of Dykstra and Greenblatt.

McGloin and McDonald admirably throw themselves fully into the roles of Richard and Ted, as well as those in their orbit, in telling the stories of two young men who met and became friends because they had so much in common.

Bookending “2 Pianos” is the first movement of Bach’s “Concerto in D minor.” It opens the show, as the guys’ four-handed duet ends in discord. It resurfaces just before intermission, with similar results. Then, as the show comes to a close, they once again tackle the opening of this devilishly, taxingly difficult piano piece, this time with success – a fittingly triumphant finale to the two characters’ intensely personal life stories.

However you might evaluate the show, “2 Pianos” seems to be the kind of crowd-pleasing stage show that’s perfect for summertime – entertaining and fairly lighthearted overall, serving up the stellar pianistics of its two stars in an undemanding and entertaining format.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through July 23. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $50 to $81. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.

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