Two pianos: check. Four hands: check. Two actors? Well, close enough.
In Wednesday's season-opening production of the syrupy play "2 Pianos 4 Hands" at MusicalFare Theatre, the company's artistic director Randall Kramer steps out from behind the scenes to demonstrate his formidable skill as a classical pianist and test his acting acumen.
Though Kramer's attempts at painting his characters fall glaringly short of the lithe and graceful arpeggios he executes at the piano, this all-too-salient show about the glory and heartbreak of artistic ambition is well worth the viewing.
The play, which begins and ends with the foreboding strains of the opening movement of Bach's first keyboard concerto, features Kramer and co-star Jeffrey Rockwell as a pair of aspiring classical pianists. Together, they set out on a journey familiar to anyone who has even fleetingly pursued a career as a professional musician.
The pair begin as impetuous and antagonistic children, grow into impossibly dorky and cocksure teenagers, and end, finally, as happy mediocrities who have discovered the stifling boundaries of their own talent and dedication.
The show, possessed throughout with a kind of hokey humor, wastes most of its first act on the prepubescent portion of the pianists' lives. When adults play children, there can often be a kind of grating quality to the performance, as if grown men are trying in vain to recall mannerisms and attitudes that they never possessed. The first act's overly cutesie writing ("when daddy cares a lot, daddy gets loud!") exacerbates this sense, as do the performances, which, especially in Kramer's case, hew to the cartoonish.
The show picks up considerably in the second act, in which the pair goes through a series of piano teachers, competitions, growth spurts and disappointments that lead to a humorous and ultimately affirming conclusion.
All questionable vaudevillian acting bits aside, the production shines most brightly when Kramer and Rockwell are tickling the ivories. From a fine rendition of the Bach concerto (one of my all-time favorites) to inspired selections by Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart and, believe it or not, Paul Anka and Rodgers and Hart, the show is packed with beautiful musical moments that often transcend the story and dialogue.
Any show that requires both the high-level chops of a classical pianist and the skill of a professional actor is bound to invite compromises. Certainly we can cut Kramer a modest amount of slack in the acting department. And to a degree, the opposite is true for Rockwell, a more gifted actor who sometimes hammers away at his piano as if it is his enemy.
Hokey as some of the show may be, it still drives home at some deep-seated truths about artistic ambition, musical and otherwise. Toward the end of the play, as Kramer's character comes to realize the incredible challenges of a life as a professional classical pianist, he says something that will touch a nerve with anyone who's ever picked up an instrument.
"I feel guilty when I'm not practicing," Kramer says. "I feel inadequate when I do."
And that sentiment, even in a show with its share of drawbacks, is worth exploring.
2 PIANOS, 4 HANDS
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Oct. 11
WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, Daemen College