Playhouse's '2 Pianos, 4 Hands' is a Breathtaking Evening of Music and Acting

Audiences might just deem this duo the best performers on Cincinnati stages this holiday season

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge Ted (Jefferson McDonald) and Richard (Matthew McGloin) in Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of "2 Pianos, 4 Hands". - MIKKI SCHAFFNER
MIKKI SCHAFFNER
Ted (Jefferson McDonald) and Richard (Matthew McGloin) in Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of "2 Pianos, 4 Hands".

CRITIC’S PICK

Being an accomplished professional actor is one thing. Being a Classical musician is another. But being both? It’s hard to imagine.

You don’t have to imagine — you can witness not one but two such performers onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre through the holidays: Jefferson McDonald and Matthew McGloin are showcasing their piano-playing chops as well as their diverse acting skills in a production of Ted Dykstra's and Richard Greenblatt’s 2 Pianos, 4 Hands. Staged by Tom Frey (whose own résumé includes playing both roles as well as directing 18 past productions of the show), this is one breathtaking evening.

Dykstra and Greenblatt were promising young musicians in the early 1990s who aspired to Classical musical stardom. But their aspirations did not quite move them to the pinnacle of such careers. Instead, they created this show to chronicle their paths from young, not terribly enthusiastic students to hardworking talents who tried hard but didn’t quite make it. McDonald portrays Ted as beefy and rumpled; McGloin is a slight, precise Richard.

But they don’t stop there: They take turns portraying one another’s colorful and demanding teachers, overbearing parents and arrogant coaches. These moments are played largely for humor, although the scenes also certainly convey the discipline and commitment needed of anyone who aspires to such careers. Even if you know nothing about the finer points of music theory, you will be able to admire the demands made on these young men.

Sometimes McDonald's and McGloin’s playing is astonishingly synchronized; at other moments, they use their music almost as elbows, jostling for position and clowning physically against one another. Their characters’ hours of practice, often to the exclusion of other aspects of life, eventually takes a toll on both of them. When they receive harsh judgments following their college auditions, the results are deflating but not necessarily depressing as their eyes are opened to a fuller spectrum of life.

Along the way, the actor/musicians show off astonishing skills at the pair of Steinway pianos placed in the center of the theater. The opening moments have them performing a movement from a Bach concerto for two pianos that goes painfully (and comically) off track. This leads them back in time to childhood piano lessons with lively teachers and exacting parents and later to adolescent attempts at showy performances. While their principal endeavors involve Classical pieces by Mozart, Chopin, Grieg and others, there are several delightful distractions into Pop tunes from Hoagy Carmichael’s “Heart and Soul” to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” McGloin and McDonald masterfully ping-pong from inept to accomplished and back again, showing the full range of talent and expectations that young performers need.

The production is played with the audience on all four sides of Steve Lucas’s simple scenic design. Temporary seating for 24 has been installed in the area that’s usually the rear of the Shelterhouse stage. The pair of unlidded pianos sit on a blond wooden floor positioned so the performers can face one another; James Sale’s lighting design uses both shadows and pools of light — sometimes illuminating just the keyboards as the performers’ fingers play melodies — to convey moods.

It’s possible to imagine that this show could be more concise; it’s performed in two 60-minute acts. Some of the scenes become a bit repetitive and could be condensed. But the show is entertaining moment to moment, and it does cover an arc of experience that is relatable regardless of the accomplishments you might have dreamed of as a young person imagining what you might become. (In fact, the Shelterhouse lobby has a white board inviting Post-It mentions of what theatergoers imagined they’d be when they grew up.)

The sweetest moment comes when the pianists return to the Bach concerto that went astray for the show’s finale. They confess that they might not be the best pianists in the world, in Canada (they’re Canadians), even in the city — but they can take pleasure in being the best in their neighborhood. I will venture to say that audiences will deem them the best performers to be seen on Cincinnati stages this holiday season.


2 Pianos, 4 Hands, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park at its Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre, continues through Jan. 5. Tickets/more info: cincyplay.com



Scroll to read more Theater articles

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.