Zany delir­ium, mu­si­cally

Jeff Blu­menkrantz and Brett Ry­back’s wacky who­dunit has en­ergy but feels un­in­volv­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC charles.mcnulty @la­times.com

The mu­si­cal who­dunit “Mur­der for Two” at Gef­fen Play­house’s Au­drey Skir­ball Ke­nis Theater is mad­cap.

“Mur­der for Two,” a mu­si­cal who­dunit per­formed cabaret-theater style by two in­de­fati­ga­ble ac­tors, is part tag team, part tug of war.

Jeff Blu­menkrantz — bald, gan­gly and bois­ter­ously over-the-top — plays all the sus­pects. Brett Ry­back — more of the straight man, though equally suited to the role of the lov­able loser get­ting an­other chance at re­demp­tion — plays wouldbe de­tec­tive Of­fi­cer Mar­cus.

The men take turns on the pi­ano, ac­com­pa­ny­ing each other when a char­ac­ter trots out one of the show’s goofy num­bers. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a turf battle en­sues, but more com­monly the fel­lows am­i­ca­bly share re­spon­si­bil­ity for pro­vid­ing mu­si­cal punc­tu­a­tion in a show that is more sketch com­edy than tra­di­tional book mu­si­cal.

Writ­ten by Joe Ki­nosian and Kellen Blair, “Mur­der for Two,” which had its world pre­miere at Chicago Shake­speare Theater in 2011, doesn’t have the camp flair of Charles Lud­lum’s “The Mys­tery of Irma Vep.” But it tries hard — as the f lop sweat on Blu­menkrantz at­tests — to match its ma­ni­a­cal en­ergy.

A slightly over­stretched di­ver­tisse­ment that has turned out to have com­mer­cial legs, the show, which opened Wed­nes­day at the Gef­fen Play­house’s Au­drey Skir­ball Ke­nis Theater, will de­light those who find this sort of frolic­some ca­per in­ge­nious rather than je­june. “Mur­der for Two” won the Joseph Jef­fer­son Award for best new mu­si­cal work in Chicago and also had some suc­cess off-Broad­way, so clearly this is not a mi­nor­ity taste.

Still, one has to be swept away by the zany delir­ium of it all, and I found my­self re­sist­ing for two rea­sons. The char­ac­ters in this mur­der mys­tery are such a mish­mash that a the­atri­cal world, even of the spoof va­ri­ety, isn’t con­vinc­ingly es­tab­lished. And Scott Schwartz’s di­rec­tion doesn’t do enough to mod­u­late Blu­menkrantz’s rau­cous play­ing style.

The book, which Ki­nosian and Blair wrote to­gether, re­volves around the ques­tion of who killed nov­el­ist Arthur Whit­ney in­side his spooky man­sion on the night of his sur­prise birth­day party. The sus­pect list in­cludes Arthur’s bit­ter wife (Blu­menkrantz wear­ing round glasses and adopt­ing a psy­chotic South­ern drawl), a bal­le­rina (Blu­menkrantz look­ing aloof and oc­ca­sion­ally el­e­vat­ing a limb) and an un­hap­pily mar­ried cou­ple (Blu­menkrantz bickering with him­self ).

A se­cret-spilling psy­chi­a­trist, a stu­dent crim­i­nol­o­gist who in­stantly falls for Mar­cus and three tough tykes from a boys’ choir — all fre­net­i­cally car­i­ca­tured by Blu­menkrantz — also fig­ure in the jury-rigged plot. The gim­mick is that th­ese weirdos ap­peared as char­ac­ters in Arthur’s books, but the lit­er­ary par­ody is just a pre­text for far­ci­cal mug­ging and un­bri­dled horse­play.

The story isn’t meant to be a model of nar­ra­tive re­fine­ment. Much of the fun comes from the lu­natic chal­lenge of sim­ply per­form­ing such con­vo­luted silli­ness. The ac­tors’ de­light in th­ese comic X Games is in­tended to spark our own.

The set by Be­owulf Boritt evokes the mu­sic hall, a fit­ting lo­cale for a show that en­joys break­ing the fourth wall through con­spir­a­to­rial winks and the di­rect in­volve­ment of those in the front row. There’s also a run­ning gag in which Blu­menkrantz be­rates the au­di­ence ev­ery time Mar­cus’ cell­phone goes off. (Ac­tor and char­ac­ter are more or less in­ter­change- able in th­ese mo­ments.)

The show fea­tures ser­vice­able comic dit­ties, larky tunes that only want to get a rise. Ki­nosian’s mu­sic is a bit more in­sin­u­at­ing than Blair’s oc­ca­sion­ally f lat­footed lyrics. But the mu­si­cal high­light for me was when, at the end of the show, Blu­menkrantz and Ry­back per­formed a dare­devil pi­ano duet, with a mir­ror show­ing off their im­pres­sive hand co­or­di­na­tion.

Here, tal­ent trumped ef­fort, a wel­come sight af­ter such ex­haust­ing comic labors.

Joan Mar­cus

TAK­ING TURNS ac­com­pa­ny­ing each other and por­tray­ing kooky char­ac­ters are the in­de­fati­ga­ble Jeff Blu­menkrantz, left, and Brett Ry­back in the mad­cap mu­si­cal who­dunit writ­ten by Joe Ki­nosian and Kellen Blair.

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