If you’ve ever found yourself wishing Agatha Christie told more jokes or thinking the only thing missing from The 39 Steps are some Broadway-style showtunes, then Stages Repertory Theatre’s got the murder-mystery musical for you.
Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s Murder for Two begins the way all great mysteries do — with a dead body, this one belonging to novelist Arthur Whitney, gunned down at his own surprise birthday party. Officer Marcus Moscowicz and his “off-screen” partner Lou, the Vern to Marcus’s Ernest, are the first on the scene. In a bit of fourth-wall-breaking, Marcus expresses appreciation for the silent, unseen Lou, because without him, Marcus would just “be thinking these things,” like his dream of making detective.
He gets his chance at the Whitney residence, when the motley group of guests (i.e. suspects) mistake him for the detective and he plays along, seeing it as his chance to prove himself. The catch is that he’s on the clock, as the actual detective is on his way, leaving Marcus only an hour to investigate and deduce who killed Whitney and why before the jig is up. And it soon becomes clear, the guests are not going to make it easy.
Among the guests are Dahlia, Whitney’s wife, bitterly resentful that he kept her out of show business like he was Ricky Ricardo; Murray and Barb, Whitney’s feisty, frisky neighbors of 20 years; and Dr. Griff, a lonely therapist who plays fast and loose with HIPAA. There’s also Barrette Lewis, a French ballerina Marcus quickly becomes infatuated with, much to the chagrin of Steph, Whitney’s niece and a criminology student with a touch of Hermione Granger know-it-all syndrome who sees her uncle’s untimely death as the perfect opportunity to expand the word count of her thesis, aptly titled “How to Assist in the Solving of a Small-Town Murder.” Three “little tough guys” from a 12-member boy’s choir and a surprise visitor round out the guest list. Marcus has his work cut out for him, but you know who has an even taller order? Ben Miller, who plays all of the suspects.
Yes, Murder for Two is (as the title implies) a two-hander under the direction of Mitchell Greco, and it’s a sprint, not a marathon. This is especially true for Miller, a chameleon who quickly and tirelessly slips in and out of about a dozen characters in the time it takes to spin in a circle. Outside of Dahlia’s cat-eye frames, Miller relies entirely on his voice and mannerisms to successfully embody each of his well-defined, distinct charges. With a grating Southern accent and hippy strut, he’s Dahlia. With his arms raised in fifth position and the perfect amount of comedic inflexibility, he’s Barrette. With a chin rub he’s the good doctor and with a stroke of his imaginary long hair he’s Steph. He’s at his most impressive when he plays double act Murray and Barb, who banter at lightning speed, and when he gets down on his knees to play the young choristers. And did I mention that he’s singing and dancing and playing the piano? Because both he and Trace Pool, who plays our intrepid detective, do it all throughout the animated production.
It’s important to note that straight man is often a thankless job, but Pool manages to steal some of the spotlight from Miller by displaying his own set of pipes and comedic timing, not to mention grounding the over-the-top production with a bit of boy-next-door likeability. Pool’s chemistry with Miller is undeniable, and together they are a formidable team. Murder for Two’s selling point, and saving grace, is just how demanding it is. If you get the right two actors, you’re guaranteed to see some of the best performances you can expect to see on a stage, and Stages has the right actors. If only the book were better.
Yes, the problem with Murder for Two is in its book, where a slow start leads to some cheesy, low-hanging jokes that don’t garner much of a smile let alone a laugh. It’s bad enough that you may be questioning your decision to see the show about ten to 15 minutes in. But the show settles and builds, so while you may question your decision to come, by the time you’re walking to the parking lot, you won’t regret your decision to stay. Namely, because of all the talent on stage and behind the scenes.
Like Kinosian and Blair’s characters, the “spooky mansion” set by Properties and Scenic Designer Jodi Bobrovsky has plenty of surprises (i.e. props) up its proverbial sleeve and it features some lovely pieces, including a beautiful blue picture window at the back, a piano at the center, a chandelier above, and a fainting couch perfect for a swoon or yet another untimely death. It also boasts depth which allows for a “transformation” corner, if you will, at the front door, a place that allows Miller to enter and exit as different characters.
The classically tailored suits that Miller and Pool sport, by Costume Designer Macy Lyne, hark back to vaudeville and old-timey double acts. It’s a great choice, as there’s nothing like seeing a man in a well-tailored suit act like a buffoon.
Joel Burkholder’s lighting designs vary to great effect; one minute, he’s employing a dramatic, single white spotlight and the next, he’s lighting a colorful cabaret. Burkholder and the production also get playful, like using lights to represent Whitney’s dead body at one point, but it only happens once, which is one time too few. Sound Designer Antonio Lopez also does well with the miscellaneous sounds that populate the production, from the pop of the gun to the yowl of a cat.
And let’s not forget, Murder for Two is a musical. Under Musical Director Steven Jones, Miller and Pool excel and show-off, navigating a score that has a good amount of variation, from the eye-rollingly funny “It Was Her” to the surprisingly earnest “He Needs a Partner” to the starts and stops of the out-of-left-field “Henry Vivaldi.” And that’s not to mention numbers like “A Lot Woise,” which is straight out of Forbidden Broadway and showstopper “Steppin’ Out of the Shadows.” And did I mention that Pool and Miller are tag-teaming the piano the entire show. Because it deserves all the mentions.
And on the subject of music, walking into the theater and being greeted with organ-heavy, Gothic versions of songs like “Thriller” and John Carpenter's “Halloween Theme” is a great mood-setting touch.
At one point, Pool and Miller pull in a “second victim” from the audience and, lucky for everyone in the theater, he was just as hammy as the show, earning big laughs from the appreciative crowd. Though late in the production, it’s a moment that perfectly exemplifies what Murder for Two can be: a hammy, harmless night at the theater. It may be empty calories, but don’t pretend there’s not a reason Coca-Cola is a billion-dollar brand. Just enjoy the crisp, cool Coke tonight and worry about the Brussels sprouts tomorrow.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Through