Two consummately talented singer-actors shine bright in Murder for Two, a musical mystery from Second Stage that has moved to New World Stages in midtown after a summer run on the Upper West Side. While it’s ideal brainless summer fun, it’s a bit riskier to put on amid autumn’s weightier offerings, but director Scott Schwartz’s nifty production makes one hope there is an audience for light-headed laughter at any time of year.
In Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s book, the set-up is hoary — guests invited to an isolated rambling mansion, a killer on the loose, a variety of suspects (think of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, invoked here, or Neil Simon’s film Murder by Death). But add a sparkling score (music by Kinosian; lyrics by Blair) and two performers, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback, who have a fine way with a Steinway, and you’re halfway there — if “there” is a frenetic parody of all the murder mystery tropes, you can tick off from the top of your head.
The victim is famed novelist Arthur Whitney, whose birthday was to be celebrated in a posh affair organized by his simmeringly resentful wife, Dahlia. The guests include Barrette Lewis, a haughty, glamorous ballerina; Murray and Barb, a squabbling married couple; Dr. Griff, a blabby psychiatrist; three kids (Timmy, Yonkers and Skid) from a choir in Badoinkaville, which is apparently equivalent to the Lower East Side in Collarhorn, the fictional small-town setting; and a bewildered firefighter who makes a brief appearance.
Moreover, there is Dahlia Whitney, the loopy socialite widow, and her niece Steph, an ambitious college student interested in law enforcement whose thesis is “How to Assist in the Solving of a Small-Town Murder.” If you think that Jefferson Mays, who is playing a mere eight characters in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway, has a challenge, check out Blumenkrantz, who plays all 12 suspects.
Opposite Blumenkrantz is a charismatic Ryback as Officer Marcus Moscowicz, a straight-arrow policeman bucking for detective, though he carries emotional scars. He’s supposed to secure the scene, but, mistaken for the expected detective, he seizes the opportunity to solve the crime before the official sleuth arrives. His only backup is another officer, Lou, seen only in silhouette, thanks to Jason Lyons’ inventive lighting.
A tone of one-upmanship is set immediately, as Ryback and Blumenkrantz have a tug-of-war over removing the piano cover. But despite the tomfoolery, they both sound great on the eighty-eight, and that includes not only their nimble fingers but Ryback’s rear end and Blumenkrantz’s feet.
The backstage set by Beowulf Borritt is apt but unprepossessing: a trunk, some cables, and an outline of a mansion that, lighted by Lyons, casts a looming shadow on the upstage wall. Blumenkrantz adopts various voices, postures, and pitches for his characters (not to mention vocalizing a creaking door), and adds a gesture to complete the characterizations: a sweep of the hand on imaginary hair for Steph; a pair of black-rimmed glasses for Dahlia; and a cigar and raspy voice for Dr. Griff. And, as one of the kids, he dances a Charleston on his knees.
Schwartz’s pacing resembles a Marx Brothers movie (a piano duet has a sly homage to Chico Marx), and it works most of the time. Occasionally Blumenkrantz’s switching of characters is a bit confusing, and some of the low comedy is as old as vaudeville — a light bulb on the proscenium arch goes on when Marcus gets an idea — but, for the most part, the hijinks are fun. If breaking the fourth wall seems routine and the firefighter scene feels like filler, those are quibbles.
On the plus side, Kinosian has a gift for writing catchy melodies, and Blair’s lyrics display a naughty wit. When Marcus worries that Timmy, Yonkers and Skid may suffer emotionally from seeing blood and Arthur Whitney’s corpse, they reassure him they’re survivors (literally) in a song called “A Lot Woise”:
“Went on a camping trip and lost nine members of the choir there
When our tent was set on fire there,
Yeah, we seen a lot woise.
"I can’t imagine how my best pal Johnny musta felt that night
When his face began to melt that night,
Boy, we seen a lot woise.”
A two-character show can’t work, though, without virtuosity in the performers, and both Ryback and Blumenkrantz make one hope to see much more of them, on a larger stage and a bigger budget. For now, though, it’s enough just to make their acquaintance.
Murder for Two will play at New World Stages, Stage 5, 340 W. 50th St., through Jan. 5. Evening performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.. Matinees are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.