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Review: An homage to piano students and teachers everywhere

Two Pianos, Four Hands a heartfelt autobiographical musical tale in two acts
Mayfield 2 Pianos 4  Hands107
Jefferson McDonald (left, as Ted) and Matthew McGloin (Richard), bring to life the journey taken by many a young piano player. Two Pianos, Four Hands is playing now at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo submitted.

Anyone who's taken piano lessons, or been the parent of a child taking piano lessons--or been that piano teacher--will find much to relate to at 2 Pianos, 4 Hands (2P4H), the season opener for the Mayfield Dinner Theatre. 

The two shiny black grand pianos that take up the entire stage are well utilized in this two-act show, an homage to the music-filled childhoods of creators Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt.

In 1994, St. Albert native Dykstra and Montrealer Greenblatt workshopped their complicated relationships with the keyboard to great success. The show that emerged has been playing across North America over and again (even in Europe) to rave reviews and sold-out houses and it's no wonder--with a talented pair playing entertaining music around a coming-of-age tale, how could you miss?

Having my own four kids who went through years of lessons and all that entails--driving to lessons, attending recitals, nagging tweens to practice--I found myself nodding with great familiarity at the dialogue on opening night. As for the performers, whether they are acting as their own young selves struggling with parents, school grades and practice time or, in turn, becoming their parents or piano teachers, musician/actors Jefferson McDonald (Ted), and Matthew McGloin (Richard) do the show proud.

We see the stress-filled exams of scales, ear training, arpeggios and sight-reading, and feel the angst of young men moving through their teens and Royal Conservatory piano levels in pursuit of a classical music career. Do they have what it takes? Can they make it in the field they've devoted their young lives to? 

McDonald, who Mayfield audiences will remember as Willie Nelson in the recent Nashville Outlaws, and as the high-energy Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet (2019), is engaging, funny and a dynamite pianist. There are elements of Jerry Lee in McDonald's performance in 2P4H, especially when he kicks away the piano seat to stand at the keyboard. McDonald is dynamic, whether being young Ted struggling through the local Kiwanis recital, or stretched out on the floor (bad back, you know) as Richard's Italian piano instructor. I enjoyed all McDonald brought to the stage on opening night. The man loves the piano--it shows.

McGloin's Richard is a strong counter-point, as skilled a piano technician as his co-star, and especially vulnerable when facing the admissions officer of a jazz school or playing for drunks in the local nightclub. His rendition of Billy Joel's Piano Man is lovely.

The pair play off each other well, and you can tell they've done this before. Both U.S. actors have taken on the demanding role more than once in their careers, and they're doing it again for Edmonton audiences--with gusto.

While featuring challenging works by classical greats like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and more, the very Canadian 2P4H includes bits of The Birch Canoe and familiar pop standards too. There's Hoagy Carmichael's Heart and Soul, (which makes everyone think they can play piano), plus bits of Linus and Lucy, Great Balls of Fire, Bennie and the Jets and Chariots of Fire.

Audiences may leave the show with an appreciation for the hard work that goes into becoming a skilled musician, and for the dedication of the teachers who get people there. In my own life, there's been Marlis Gunderson and especially Samantha Yoon-Chin, who has shepherded my two youngest through to high levels of piano proficiency. Thanks for everything, ladies.

There's an idea: if you have a piano teacher in your life, thank them by taking them to see 2P4H. It's a big love letter to those important people in our lives--teachers who have nurtured a love of music, challenged young players to stay the course when they want to quit, and inspired creative souls to realize there are all kinds of ways to express talent and skill. 

Two Pianos, Four Hands runs to October 23, with evening and some matinee performances. See mayfieldtheatre.ca for tickets.