OK, now I can breathe. It has been one busy semester here at The Boston Conservatory, let me tell you. Of course, amid the hullabaloo, I continually remind myself that I'm teaching what I love -- musical-theater history -- and that I no longer have to make a living writing about injection-blow-molding companies or direct-mail campaigns. (Can we get an "amen"?)
I've done a better job than usual of keeping up with my end-of-the-semester blogging backlog, but I do still have three reviews from 2013 left to write: Murder For Two, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, and A Night With Janis Joplin. In short, the first two are delightful, and the last is an excruciating scream-fest with no compensatory human drama. Watch for my full reviews to come. (Also, keep an eye out for my annual lists of the best and worst musicals of the year.)
I saw Murder for Two in its initial New York engagement on the Upper West Side under the auspices of the Second Stage Theatre. I genuinely enjoyed the show -- with some minor qualifications, as we shall see -- but never got around to writing a review because I had seen it so late in the run there really didn't seem to be a point. But when the show announced an additional engagement at the New World Stages, I was eager to catch it again and this time actually weigh in.
Murder for Two is a fresh and funny two-hander in which a pair of actors not only portray all of the various characters -- actually one (Brett Ryback) plays the "detective," while the other (Jeff Blumenkrantz) plays all of the suspects -- but they also take turns playing piano to accompany the other, or themselves, or both. (Two performers, no additional musicians. Talk about your cheap running costs, right?) The reason for the quotes around "detective" is that this character is really just a police officer who is bucking for detective and who tries to crack the case himself before the real detective shows up.
As the title implies, Murder for Two is a comic whodunit. On a dark and stormy night, as it were, a famous author is shot dead in the course of a dinner party. The police show up and question the party guests, each of whom seems to have a motive for the killing. The respective motives are based on the now-deceased author having exposed or embarrassed each of the guests, including our would-be detective, in one of the author's various books.
The eventual reveal as to who-actually-dunit is actually rather unconvincing, but it's a tribute to the authors, the director, and the performers that the journey is so deliciously diverting that it more than makes up for the unsatisfying denouement. Murder for Two is sort of like A Chorus Line in this respect: Who gets picked at the end of A Chorus Line? Who cares? In both of these admittedly disparate shows, it's not about the destination, but rather the journey.
Murder for Two is the product of a notable new writing team, Joe Kinosian, (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics). The pair met at the BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, and if Murder for Two is any indication, we can expect great things from these talented young men. Kinosian's music is lively and engaging, while Blair's lyrics are well-crafted and thankfully devoid of slant rhyme and faulty scansion. One particularly apt couplet that had me grinning both times I saw the show was "We'll be BFFs forever/That's redundant, but whatever."
Director Scott Schwartz, the man who made the Off-Broadway production of Bat Boy such a riot, brings a similar sense of ingenuity and swift pacing to Murder for Two. The uptown production of the show felt a bit sluggish and forced at times, and not all of the show's abundant humor was landing. But Schwartz seems to have tightened up the the weak spots, including a rather vague prologue and an attenuated coda.
Chief among the show's charms are its two protean and assiduous performers. Brett Ryback is fresh-faced, energetic, and extremely appealing in the role of the detective manqué. And Jeff Blumenkrantz is nothing less than a force of nature as...well...everybody else. Both times I saw the show, I sat in awe of Blumenkratz's ability to shift ably among a dozen characters or so, sometimes for less than a second, and convey all of them with utter believability. That he was able to do so at times without any words at all, embodying each character through posture, facial expression, and mannerism, is all the more remarkable.
Although the show is currently scheduled to run through March 16th, Blumenkrantz will play his final performance on January 19th, after which composer Joe Kinosian will take up the role of "The Suspects," a part he played during the show's regional run at Chicago Shakespeare. With all due respect to Kinosian, I can't imagine anyone topping Blumenkrantz, who is simply masterful here. If you're planning to see the show, which I highly suggest, you might want to take it in before Blumenkrantz departs.