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'2 Pianos 4 Hands' requires skills on many levels [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

December 5, 2013

YellowBrix

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" sets out to offer a comedic and touching exploration of childhood dreams for greatness meeting life's harsh realities.

Along the way, the play -- co-created by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt in the mid-1990s about their very real memories of growing up as would-be piano prodigies -- also speaks to anyone trying to find his or her place in the world.

City Theatre presents a new production of this play with music (it's not a musical, director Tom Frey is quick to point out), which opens Dec. 6. It includes melodic nods to a wide range of artists, from Frederic Bach to Billy Joel, Elton John to John Lennon, Hoagy Carmichael to Ludwig van Beethoven and Chopin to Jerry Lee Lewis.

"We've had our eyes on '2 Pianos 4 Hands' for a long time," says artistic director Tracy Brigden. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to create a brand-new production with an exceptional duo."

The play stars Bob Stillman and Christopher Tocco, working together for the first time.

The theater has designed and built all of the production elements of the show from scratch, including scenic, lighting and costume designs.

Brigden says "2 Pianos 4 Hands" is for anyone who ever dreamed big and then didn't quite make it.

This is the often-riotous story of Ted (Stillman) and Richard (Tocco), childhood friends who spent years chasing the same goal: concert pianist stardom. The cast of two (four if you count the two 7-foot concert pianos) also portray dozens of characters, including pushy parents and eccentric teachers, as they try to convey the joys and tortures of being very talented musicians.

All the music is performed live by Stillman and Tocco.

"I really want to stress this, because the guys work too hard for anyone to think otherwise," says Frey, a Michigan native and New York City resident

Frey knows "2 Pianos 4 Hands" intimately. In the past 15 years, he has played the roles of either Bob or Richard nearly 700 times and this will be the 11th production of it he has directed.

"Much of what the real Ted and Richard went through, and much of what is represented in this play, is exactly what I went through up to a certain age," Frey says.

Stillman and Tocco have similar recollections.

"Oh, boy ... in so many ways, it's the story of my childhood," says Stillman, who grew up on the south shore of Long Island, attending Julliard from age 9 until the end of high school. The singer-songwriter and actor has been nominated for two Tony Awards in a career that also includes television.

"The play is very much about the exquisite pain of being a kid and trying to figure out where you fit in in the world," he says. "Anyone who's been a kid will feel that; and anyone who's raised a kid will feel it, too."

Tocco says the chronicle of Richard and Ted resonates deeply with him, having grown up playing piano from the age of 6.

"Many episodes from the play could have been pulled directly from my own experiences with various teachers, anxieties about performing publicly at recitals or competitions, arguments with parents about practicing, etc.," he says.

He sees Richard as the kind of guy who is able to retain a remarkable sense of exuberance and childlike wonder about life in the face of his struggles and challenges.

"Those qualities of hopeful spontaneity and positivity greatly appeal to me and (are) how I hope to live my own life," says Tocco, who admits he initially was overwhelmed by the staggering amount of work the play requires.

"Tom is extraordinarily smart and has a great sense of physical comedy," he says. "He knows the grain of this piece intimately, the texture under the surface that makes the funny bits funny and the moving bits moving."

Frey says this show is "nearly impossible" to cast because it requires two people who are gifted character actors who also happen to be able to play classical piano at a very high level.

"Then, they also have to match as a team," he says. "This is an unbelievably difficult play. We're very lucky to have Chris and Bob.

"City Theatre audiences will get to experience the thrill of watching two guys tackle a play -- that's nearly impossible to accomplish, for the first time. There's something very high-wire about that, and I know audiences will feel it."

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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