Fort Worth — Do the math: 12 singing, dancing characters in a wide variety of roles, and two pretty damn good pianists, adds up to…two guys, and only two, singing, playing, dancing and acting in Stage West’s current production of Murder for Two by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair.
The show premiered in Chicago in 2011 before initiating an award-winning run off-Broadway in 2013 and subsequent tour (it was in Dallas in 2015). The Fort Worth production stars Mark Schenfisch and Teddy Warren—the former as Marcus, a wannabe detective, the latter as all ten of the remaining roles. And, since it’s a musical, both Schenfisch and Warren play the sturdy on-stage piano, and play it very well, sometimes together, sometimes separately.
The plot is thin, and deliberately packed with cliché. It’s also quite unlikely that anyone in the audience could care or put any brain power into figuring out whodunit, or, God forbid, look for moral or meaning.
That a good thing, since the main point of the show is to display Warren in his lightning-quick shifts of character, with a bonus of cute musical numbers (and the inevitable cultural allusions, ranging from a throwaway reference from To Kill a Mockingbird to running gags about cellphones and one of Lauren Bacall’s iconic lines in To Have and Have Not.) And, yes, to laugh a lot.
A messy storeroom (or, maybe old garage) cluttered with worn-out junk (and a grand piano) counter-intuitively and comically represents the setting of an old New England house where novelist Arthur Whitney (who happens to write murder mysteries) is shot and killed at play’s opening. Warren proceeds to introduce himself as the earnest and lisping post-adolescent niece, the southern-accented and not particularly grieving widow, a sexy and sultry ballerina, a bickering married couple, three insecurity-ridden choirboys, and an emotionally needy Austrian-accented psychiatrist. Hats, caps, sunglasses, a scarf, a hair bow, and a purse signal the character changes, but Warren’s chameleonesque shifts almost make the props unnecessary.
Frankly, I had to remind myself at the end of the show that, indeed, it was just one fellow doing all those roles. In at least one of the productions since the show’s creation, an actress has taken on that compound role; and, though several different two-person casts have performed the show in various other professional productions, this is one appealing off-Broadway show that’s probably not going to have a life in the community theater world simply because of the multiple skill levels required.
While Warren is ultimately the greater of two equals simply because of his miraculous and constant transformation, Schenfisch holds his own with wide-eyed determination in his one-character task as the hapless cop, with the mad antics of the pair tied together neatly under the supervision of choreographer-director Lindy Heath Davis.
The score (by Kinosian) and lyrics (by Blair) are appropriately lean and delightfully old-fashioned, harking back musically to the mild jazz of tin-pan alley and the comical rhymes and wordplay of the era of Porter and Gershwin. Multi-tasking as music director, Davis also supervised the vaudevillian keyboard showmanship, while Schenfisch and Warren supplied appropriately unpretentious vocal delivery in this hilariously fine showcase of two extraordinarily versatile and funny entertainers.