Off Broadway Review: ‘Murder for Two’

Two-person musical dials it up to 11 when a subtler hand might have scored

Jeff Blumenkrantz, Brett Ryback.

Murder for Two,” a two-character spoof by Joe Kinosian (book & music) and Kellen Blair (book & lyrics) of an old-fashioned stage whodunit, is the first musical produced by Second Stage at its Uptown venue.  Pity it lands with such a thud.  The premise is certainly promising: one actor, a proficient pianist who can also carry a tune, plays a cop working his first homicide, while a second singer-actor, also adept at the keyboard, plays about a dozen murder suspects.  But, ouch! The aggressive comedic style adopted by helmer Scott Schwartz is about as subtle as a gun to the head.

Could be that the material was handled with more wit and imagination at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where the show was developed and had its premier performance.  But in this local edition, the cleverness of the original idea is crushed by a bullying performance style that force-feeds the comedy instead of letting it stand on its feet and speak for itself.

The dozen-plus characters (including the invisible ones) who figure in the corny plot were plucked from every Agatha Christie novel you think you’ve read, so it’s okay to call them genre archetypes instead of, say, cliched stereotypes.  The murder victim, a rich and famous novelist who revealed his friends’ dirty secrets in his books, clearly deserved what he got — a shot in the head, a knife in the gut, or a poisoned cup of tea, depending on who happens to be telling the story.  But everyone at his wake-cum-pizza party had a motive, and it’s up to young Officer (and would-be Detective) Marcus to determine whodunit.  Once he stops climbing the walls and settles down, left-coast thesp Brett Ryback turns in a worthy Gotham debut.

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It falls to Jeff Blumenkrantz, a performer so loose-limbed and lanky he resembles an unstrung marionette, to play every last one of these suspects. Not the easiest task in the world, to be sure, but not beyond the talents of, say, Jefferson Mays, Michael Urie, or any thesp who managed to land a job in “The 39 Steps.”

Blumenkrantz’s most effective technique is finding a signature physical pose that instantly nails a character.  That M.O. works best with suspects like Barrette Lewis, a well-known (and well-named) ballerina who is constantly en pointe, or the 12-member boys’ choir represented by nine-year-old Timmy, who talks out of the side of his mouth and walks on his knees.

But that physical agility doesn’t translate into vocal versatility, and Blumenkrantz puts his foot into his mouth whenever he tries on elaborate regional accents and distinctive speech patterns.  Dahlia, the victim’s widow and an aged Southern belle, sounds like a drag queen having a hit of oxygen. And Steph, the simpering college girl who is determined to hook up with Marcus, speaks in a breathy lisp that invites slow strangulation.

Other characters are so unexceptional they might as well be garden gnomes. But at least garden gnomes are distinguished by their cute little caps and pointy-toed footwear, which raises the question of why the designers were so stingy with props and costume pieces that might have added character color. Or why Beowulf Boritt wasn’t charged with designing a booby-trapped set that might have punched up the laughs.

The creatives probably felt that the character songs would take care of all that.  But while Ryback and Blumenkrantz are extremely entertaining when they’re pounding away at competitive piano duets, the individual character songs tend to lack, well, character.  One palpable hit is “So What If I Did?”, Barrette’s laughably unsuccessful attempt to clear her name:  ” So what if this morning we got in a fight? / So what? / Who cares what we said? / So what if I told him I’d kill him tonight?”

But in general, the best songs are the full-blown musical numbers that play to Blumenkrantz’s gift for physical comedy, like the ingenious number that has the thesp going through a variety of silly dance moves.  More of this, and we might not care if we never find out whodunit.

Off Broadway Review: 'Murder for Two'

Second Stage Theater Uptown; 99 seats; $40 top.  Opened July 25, 2013.  Reviewed July 24.  Running time:  ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

Production: A Second Stage Theater presentation of a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of a musical in one act with book and music by Joe Kinosian and book and lyrics by Kellen Blair.

Creative: Directed by Scott Schwartz.  Set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Andrea Lauer; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Jill BC DuBoff; music director, David Caldwell; movement, Wendy Seyb; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp.

Cast: Jeff Blumenkrantz, Brett Ryback.

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