A Killer Spoof: Murder for Two: A New Musical Comedy

By Brooks Appelbaum -- Special to the Shoreline Times

Murder for Two, playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through August 30, is many things—a cabaret-style entertainment, a murder mystery, a spoof of Broadway musicals, and a send-up of its own genre: the spoof of Broadway musical murder-mystery (as in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder). One thing Murder for Two is not: just one more conventional commercial crowd-pleaser.

Though Murder for Two is closer to a 90-minute comedy routine than to a book-driven musical, the writers, Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, who won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new musical work in Chicago, imbue the evening with enough wit, speed, and pure silliness to get away with their high-concept structure: one piano, two actors/musicians, multiple characters (male and female, young and old) and a murder investigation that takes -- you guessed -- exactly 90 minutes.

Now, call me curmudgeonly, but I have not remotely been a fan of the murder mystery in any form. In fact, I have avoided seeing even the most lauded productions whenever possible. However, thanks to clever directing by Scott Schwartz, and mainly to the virtuoso performances of the two men of this touring company (I can’t imagine better actors for these roles), the evening is, for the most part, a delight. Ian Lowe -- blond, all-American, wide of smile and, often, frantic of face -- plays Marcus, the hapless and lovelorn cop who yearns to be a real detective. And Kyle Branzel, whose delicate features and long, loose limbs seem to be made of Silly Putty, plays…well, everyone else. Both men play the single piano that dominates Beowulf Boritt’s small but elegant box set (complete with incandescent bulbs bordering the proscenium. At times only one man is at the piano, at other times Lowe and Branzel play together, and occasionally, when they need an extra hand or two, they use their feet.

The plot is simple -- even simplistic -- and definitely not to be taken the least bit seriously. Mrs. Whitney (a bizarre, aging Southern belle who would, it seems, almost kill for a chance at a big, show-stopping number) has planned a surprise party for her novelist husband. But minutes after the guests have all assembled, Mr. Whitney walks through the door and is shot in the forehead. Immediately, Marcus is on the scene with his back-up policeman pal, Lou, who stays outside and offstage. And the search for the killer is on.

At first, sorting out who is who is something of a chore, since all the suspects/party guests are played by one actor. But Branzel is brilliant, and the writers have been smart enough to set in place the individual suspect interview to help us get to know these zany characters one by one. And as we do, the pace picks up and the laughter kicks in.

Might guilt fall on the beautiful ballerina, Barrette Lewis, whose “So What?” number eerily mimics Fraulein Schneider’s in Cabaret? What about the psychiatrist who wants, more than anything, to have a friend -- or at least, a friendship song, as in Anything Goes, Mame, Chicago, and Wicked? We couldn’t possibly imagine the killer to be the dead man’s sweet niece, Steph, who just happens to be writing a thesis on crime solving? And surely the three tough kids who are all that’s left of the twelve choir boys (don’t ask) couldn’t have pulled that trigger?

Murder for Two really shines in the virtuoso musicianship and the witty lyrics. The piano accompanies Broadway spoof songs, provides atmospheric melodies, and occasionally enacts the conflicts between Marcus and one of his suspects. The best segment of the evening comes at the end, when after one curtain call, Lowe and Branzel sit down together to toss off the most difficult and humorous piano piece we’d heard yet -- just because they can.

And really: it’s hard to resist a show that has a nine year old choir boy singing that he’s not remotely fazed by a bloody corpse because, “I saw Mama Mia -- once! -- and that was lots worse than this!”

Murder for Two runs through August 30. Tickets are available by calling the Long Wharf Theatre Box Office (203-787-4282) or visiting the website at www.longwharf.org. The Long Wharf Theatre is located at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven.

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