When actor-director Tom Frey was growing up, he had an intense relationship with the piano. Eventually he and the instrument went through what he calls “a bad breakup” and he didn’t play for a long time.
Then he saw “2 Pianos 4 Hands,” a 1996 comedy play with music about two men telling the stories of their lifelong love-hate relationship with the piano. The play features more than 20 pieces of piano music, from Bach, Beethoven and Chopin works to pop and jazz numbers. Frey said watching the play was like seeing his own life story unfolding onstage.
“It was so close to what I had gone through,”Frey said. “I knew I had to audition (for the show), but I was terrified. But I knew if I didn’t, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
That was in 1998, and in the 24 years since, Frey has not only performed in “2 Pianos 4 Hands” more than 600 times, he is also the U.S. resident director of the play. With the blessing of the play’s Canadian co-creators Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, Frey has directed more than 20 productions of the play, including the one that opens Saturday at North Coast Repertory Theatre. The Solana Beach theater first presented the play in 2011 and sales were so brisk that the run was extended before the play even opened.
Dykstra and Greenblatt loosely based the play on their own experiences encountering sheet music for the first time, their struggles with the monotony of practicing, their competitiveness at youth piano contests, their conservatory training, the unfulfilling jobs they were forced to take when their concert bookings stalled and their middle-aged disillusionment over the musical careers that never came to pass. But Frey said the play isn’t really about the piano or classical music.
“Ted and Richard told me they knew they had a good thing going when people would come up to them after the play and say it was about baseball or tennis,” Frey said. “It’s about anything you’ve ever tried to do at a really high level and been hit with some sort of obstacle and learned how to overcome that.”
Frey said casting the show is a difficult process and it requires actors with diverse skills and great stamina. The show is so physically demanding that he likes to give his actors a month of recovery time between productions.
“It takes a crazy background to play these roles,” he said. “They have to be able to play piano at a really high level, and they have to be gifted character actors.”
Starring in the North Coast Rep production are Jefferson McDonald and Matthew McGloin, who have worked together in three previous productions of the play. Frey cast McDonald and McGloin for a 2019 Cincinnati production that was to be followed by four or five other stagings across North America, but the pandemic scuttled most of those plans. In August, they reteamed for a production at Frey’s own theater in Peterborough, N.H., and they finished a second run in Edmonton, Canada, in October. Talks are now under way for several more runs because Frey said he thinks McDonald and McGloin are one of the best onstage teams he’s ever assembled.
“They both have a really personal connection to the story. They’re both incredibly gifted as comedic actors. They’re great piano players, and they both work incredibly hard. Harder than a lot of the teams I’ve seen. And they’ve got incredible chemistry,” Frey said.
‘2 Pianos 4 Hands’
When: Opens Saturday and runs through June 1. Showtimes vary, but mostly: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Info: (858) 481-1055