Endurance, the pianist's forte

Times Staff Writer

The arts aren't for sissies, though that's exactly what an aspiring young pianist might be labeled when he's stuck at home practicing while the neighborhood boys head off to shoot hoops. But watch a pianist's hands sometime: wrists unnaturally arched, fingers muscularly striking the keys. That takes real strength. And perseverance.

"2 Pianos 4 Hands," a mid-1990s theatrical work that follows two boys into the world of classical piano, chronicles the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat so common to that discipline.

Vigorous and amusing, the show has been performed around the world, in dozens upon dozens of cities, but it's been surprisingly little-seen in the Los Angeles area. How gratifying, then, to see it programmed into the Laguna Playhouse season, in a ready-made Marquis Entertainment production that gleams like the polish on a grand piano.

As the two-person show relives the experiences of Ted and Richard -- named after creators and original performers Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt -- it progresses through mind-twisting drills, tedious hours of practice, terrifying public competitions and, most thrillingly, those breakthrough moments that make everything worthwhile.

For the audience, this shared experience is like joining the aspiring dancers of "A Chorus Line" or the young spellers of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

But more essentially, it resonates with anyone who's ever had a dream.

Tom Frey portrays Ted, and Richard Carsey is Richard. Both men have performed the show extensively, and they masterfully hit the story's beats, under Greenblatt's direction.

Seated facing each other across the long expanses of twin grand pianos, the actors portray the young musicians and, in alternating scenes, switch into roles as parents, teachers and adjudicators.

The boys squirm on their benches and grimace through exercises. The adults press weary fingers to their foreheads and bang frustratedly at the piano's shell.

Progressively more difficult music -- by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt and others -- propels the scenes, with the likes of Elton John, John Lennon and Vangelis providing the notes for a romp into the world of pop.

The focus remains resolutely on the players, since the stage is left bare, in Steve Lucas' design, except for the pianos and two huge gold picture frames beyond, which are inset with screens that display simple scene-setting projections. The performers slip out of formal black tails to play the everyday scenes and don the coats again for their big finale.

Frey's Ted tends to be more persnickety and arrogant; Carsey's Richard is looser and goofier, but no less competitive. Flipping through endless pages of tricky passages, one might moan, "Oh, yeah! Like someone could actually play this." Fumbling a phrase halfway through, he will lament, "How are you supposed to make your fingers do that?" But when the musicians get everything right, the notes ripple and percolate, skip and twirl.

The second act bogs down in one too many scenes of dreams running smack into walls. Still, the point is effectively conveyed: A person's true mettle is revealed in those moments in which he or she recovers and keeps on going.

Life's not for sissies, either.


'2 Pianos 4 Hands'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Also 2 p.m. Jan. 19; 7 p.m. Jan. 29.

Ends: Feb. 5

Price: $20 to $59

Contact: (949) 497-2787 or www.LagunaPlayhouse.com

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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