Sure, there have been two-person, gender-bending, multi-role murder mysteries on the New York stage before (The Mystery of Irma Vep), but have the principals also had to sing and provide piano accompaniment for each other throughout? In Murder for Two, a charmingly frenetic new musical comedy playing as part of Second Stage Theatre’s Uptown series through Aug. 17, the weight of an entire 95-minute musical whodunit falls on the shoulders of a pair of actors, Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz. What’s more Blumenkrantz must portray every suspect in the piece: young and old, male and female, sane and insane.
Centering on the murder of a famous mystery novelist at his own estate during a surprise party, Murder for Two sneaks up on the audience in a slow and steady method. At first, the main gimmick threatens to engulf the production in a shroud of coy cuteness. But then Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s libretto and score, both patterned on old-fashioned charm songs and physical-comedy goofing, takes hold. And the production becomes a rather brisk ride, complete with poisoned tea, fourth-wall breaks (including an amusing bit where one of the leads thinks a cell phone keeps going off in the audience), and malaprop-prone party guests (”I’m gonna go ahead and nip this one in the butt”). And there’s even some audience participation; a major daily news critic played a dying victim at my performance, rather gamely.
A production like Murder for Two lives and dies by its performers, and director Scott Schwartz found two aces. Ryback is engaging as the wide-eyed cop looking for his big professional break; at times, he looks and acts uncannily like Broadway vet Roger Bart — with the same on-stage energy. But the show belongs to Blumenkrantz. In a very funny, all-stops-out, comic sprint, he portrays everyone from a dweeby Nancy Drew-wannabe niece of the victim, a former dancer with ”m’hip issues” and, most fun of all, select members of a boys’ choir, which allows Blumenkrantz to perform an entire number on his knees using only a baseball cap to differentiate the youngsters. It’s a marathon role, but Blumenkrantz is the first to the finish line. B+