The Singing Detective . . . and Suspects

Review of Murder for Two at Long Wharf Theatre

The key insight underlying Murder for Two, now playing at Long Wharf Main Stage in a touring production, is that the characters in your typical whodunit are generally a cast of caricatures, only present to fill out the list of suspects. In this high energy musical production, imbued with the spirit of rapid-fire vaudevillian schtick, one actor (Kyle Branzel) plays all the suspects and the other (Ian Lowe) plays Marcus, a cop intent on crime scene protocol as a means to move up the ladder to detective. The murder of famous novelist Arthur Whitney, at a surprise birthday party in his home, is the occasion for Marcus to make the most of his nascent detective chops.

 Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

Ian Lowe as Officer Marcus

The suspects include Dahlia, Whitney’s wife, and Dr. Griff, the local psychiatrist, who, it turns out, was not only Whitney’s confidante but also saw, professionally, pretty much everyone at the party, not to mention Marcus himself, still haunted by an on-the-job romance that went awry. There’s also a ballet star Whitney was sweet on, a bickering couple—the husband believes his wife is the culprit in every killing—Whitney’s niece Steph (a would-be criminology student), three members of a boy’s choir, and, rewardingly silly, an Irish fireman with his hose. The key plot point is that all the guests appeared as characters in Whitney’s books: the motive of any one of them might be the shame or anger his portrayal inspired. And what about All Them Bananas, the book Whitney was preparing for publication at the time of his death?

Some of the parts—signaled by Branzel mostly by body language and voice—come off better than others and the ones that don’t—the couple, for instance—bring down the fun a notch. Scott Schwartz’s direction aims for speed over clarity and the scripting of what each suspect adds to the mystery could be better worked-out, since not all are funny enough to justify their presence for the sake of comedy. Best in that light is Mrs. Whitney, a southern belle with wild mood swings, the imperious ballet dancer, Ms. Lewis—Branzel’s high split each time he turns into her is a nice grace note—and the endearing and inquisitive Steph, dotingly eager to become Marcus’s new partner. Meanwhile, the shrink demands to sing a song about friendship and Mrs. Whitney wants to regale us with her big number from back when she walked the boards. Which is where the music comes in.

 Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

Ian Lowe and Kyle Branzel (as Dahlia Whitney)

A piano is the main prop here, as Branzel and Lowe keep up spirited musical patter to match the scripted shenanigans. Sometimes one accompanies the other’s vocal, sometimes they engage in comic oneupmanship at the keys. The songs tend to be music hall versions of Broadway numbers, which means they give us character notes—not always as clever as we might like—so we know something about the different suspects. Marcus’s ditty about crime scenes takes its tone from Gilbert and Sullivan, while Steph’s big number, “He Needs a Partner,” throbs with an ingenue’s musical pining. Both Branzel and Lowe are readily likeable and make the most of the best the show—written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair—has to offer. It helps greatly that Branzel is so good at playing ditzy females. He grabs the role as if he were born to play it, making the most of his long legs, lanky frame, and ability to contort Jerry Lewis-style and play dumbshow à la Harpo.

 Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

Kyle Branzel (as Dr Griff), Ian Lowe (Officer Marcus)

If you’re not the type to seek out Lewis and Martin or the Marx Brothers in re-runs on cable or in your Netflix cue, there’s still something to be said for watching physical and musical comedy performed live and, as it were, in your face. Murder for Two proffers a kind of mash-up that should have great audience appeal—and seems to, given the show's tours and awards—of the murder mystery and the musical, as well as the small cast/many characters turn of crowd-pleasers like The Mystery of Irma Vep and The 39 Steps.

The illusion of setting is pretty much dispensed with in Murder, given the piano, the proscenium with doors for other spaces, and the actors’ attention to the audience—to demand applause, scold for ringing phones, and entreat a volunteer to play a corpse. There’s a zany “anything for a laugh” quality to the show—including visual references to the board game Clue and the cartoon Scooby-Doo—that adds surprises to help distract from the show’s static elements. In the end, it’s all about performance, and with the irrepressibly manic Kyle Branzel as the suspects and Ian Lowe, an able abettor as straight man and ambitious if questionable sleuth, Murder for Two keeps the ball rolling, though sometimes giving us the feeling that we’ve been treated to a few too many parlor tricks.

 

Second Stage Theatre presents
Murder for Two, a New Musical Comedy
Book and Music by Joe Kinosian
Book and Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Starring Kyle Branzel and Ian Lowe

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: Andrea Lauer; Lighting Design: Jason Lyons; Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff; Music Director: David Caldwell; Choreographer: Wendy Seyb; Casting: Calleri Casting; Production Stage Manager: Katrina Olson; Production Supervisor: Production Core; Associate Producer: Tom Casserly

Long Wharf Theatre Mainstage
August 19-30, 2015