By Sharon Aschaiek
Anyone who's ever had a dream -- and has fought like hell for that dream -- can relate to the onstage antics of Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt in the hit musical comedy 2 Pianos, 4 Hands.
In a two-hour, performance that has gained international acclaim, Greenblatt and Dykstra play two young boys who fall in -- and out and in -- love with playing the piano. The story is semi-autobiographical, following the similar paths both took as children: each began playing classical piano at age seven, worked with many teachers with different styles, and experiencing the anxiety of yearly exams and public performances.
In 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, comedic duo Richard Greenblatt, left, and Ted Dykstra, right, show the struggles of trying to achieve a dream job, what happens when life doesn't go as planned.
Where the play differs from reality is in the nature of their ultimate career goals. On stage, both men decide at 17 to give up on their dream jobs of becoming classical pianists -- and then find each other and the show. In reality, Dykstra and Greenblatt never yearned for that life; rather, during all those public performances, it was being onstage and the audience response that was the real thrill. But in any case, the message in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands still rings true.
"Anybody who has a dream, they put their heart and soul into it as a youngster. Whether its hockey or figure skating or ballet, they might have a dream of doing it professionally, but they hit a point where they're not going to be Gretzky or make it to the pros, but they love hockey so much, they still want their life involved in it," says Greenblatt, 50.
In the play, Dykstra and Greenblatt are forced to make this decision when, after a decade of practicing every day for several hours a day, they fall short of becoming classical pianists.
Greenblatt discovers the foolhardiness of thinking he can easily transfer his piano skills into the realm of jazz when he fails an audition to become a jazz teacher.
Dykstra, meanwhile, is put in his place during an entry test for the Royal Conservatory of Music by a staunch examiner -- played by Greenblatt -- who says he hasn't been taking the craft seriously enough.
The defeat stings, and each falls into make-do jobs -- Dykstra teaching piano, Greenblatt playing at bars. It isn't until years later that their dreams are finally realized via 2 Pianos, 4 Hands.
"If you can't do what you love, then do whatever you can with it. You can still celebrate what you love," says Dykstra, 42.
In reality, Dykstra and Greenblatt have much to celebrate. Their award-winning show has been extremely well-received by audiences around the world, in the U.S., England and now back in Toronto where it all began.
The two met about 20 years ago while working in the same theatre group, and after discovering their similar backgrounds, began trading anecdotes.
The two would go on to pursue separate careers in the arts. Greenblatt completed a theatre education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England, and over his 29-year career, has acted, written, directed and created numerous plays.
"I get bored doing one thing," Greenblatt says. "This is the way I like to work. Part of the essence of theatre is that it encompasses every art form, so there's a tendency to want to be involved in those different aspects."
Dykstra has established himself as a theatre actor as well, and has also starred in dozens of movies and TV shows.
In 1994, though, the two finally decided to collaborate, putting their talent and their comedic chemistry to use to create
2 Pianos, 4 Hands. What began as a 25-minute performance for the Tarragon Spring Arts Fair in 1994, which received great praise, inevitably evolved in 1996 into a full-length production, facilitated by the newly established theatre company the two had formed -- Talking Fingers.
It received excellent reviews, an extended, sold-out run, and two prestigious industry awards: the Dora Mavor Moore Award as best production, and the Chalmers Award for New Plays.
Popular demand has also led to the Toronto show being extended to this Sunday. The show will wrap up for good after a one-month tour in Japan and Singapore early next year.
"The response has been overwhelming," Dykstra says. It's been amazing every step of the way."
Audience members laugh with recognition at the plot and nods of understanding are common. Dykstra says, many often come backstage to tell their own stories of growing up and slaving away at their passion.
Talent and fine-tuned choreography are also the appeal, with the two being able to play whole songs on two pianos seamlessly, as one leaves the piano and the other one takes over, and vice versa.
Away from the pianos, Greenblatt and Dykstra keep the audience entertained with their skillful impersonations of each others' eccentric piano teachers, nagging parents and more -- investing the two-man show with colour and character.
But perhaps what audiences find most provocative is the fabulous chemistry between the two -- in fact, no one seems to be having more fun than them.
"We have an amazing chemistry that is kind of rare," Dykstra says. "He's an anchor and I'm a satellite. If we were both satellites, we'd go out of control. If we were both anchors, not enough spontaneous things would happen."
Greenblatt offers his own analogy: "It's kind of like being married. We spend so much time together, and I also have same birthday as his wife!" he laughs.
"I wanted emotional depth to it, and he wanted it to be funny. So together we managed to balance it out."
Those of us with our vision fixed firmly on a certain path can take away important lessons both from the play and from the actors themselves.
On stage, Dykstra and Greenblatt succinctly illustrate the point that while it can be crushing to realize you won't be the next Venus Williams or Bill Gates or Yo Yo Ma, its important to think flexibly and realize dream jobs can take many forms.
And from the actors themselves, accomplished theatre workers who never imagined their biggest hit would be based on their piano-playing skills, comes equally valuable advice.
"Know what you want, and if you want to do it so badly, that's the only reason to do it," Greenblatt says.
"There's a way to make it happen -- doing what you love. "You can figure it out, you really can."
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