In Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s comedic musical murder mystery “Murder for Two,” the audience follows ambitious, small town police officer Marcus Moscowicz as he pursues his dream of making detective, albeit through the use of a little deception.
When great American novelist Arthur Whitney is shot dead upon arrival to his own surprise birthday party, Moscowicz finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. Seizing the opportunity to impress his boss, he decides to investigate the scene of the crime –and a roomful of zany suspects– with the help of Lou, his invisible sidekick.
There’s only one small problem, though: everyone at the party has some motive for murdering the famous author, and their shenanigans and mind games make it difficult for Moscowicz to make head or tails of the homicide.
This show was an off-Broadway hit in 2013, and now Richmond audiences can follow along and make their own predictions about whodunit at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, where “Murder for Two” runs through Feb. 26. It’s a really fun show, family-friendly and full of surprises.
The first notable element upon entering the theater is director Tom Width’s quirky set design, which lends a sense of the surreal to the show with an off-kilter fireplace, mismatched furniture, and ornate decorative elements such as a marble staircase, ionic columns and multiple chandeliers. The many differently-sized paintings on the wall in odd-angled frames will later spin and shake as Joe Doran’s lighting design flashes wildly in a moment of onstage mayhem.
Two actors enter in similar-looking costumes –Maura Lynch Cravey’s design gave each actor variations on a foundational base of brown pants and button-up shirts– and begin to rearrange the pedestals and flowers onstage. As they remove the red velvet cover from the grand piano center stage, it’s clear this show is going to look very different from other murder mysteries we may have seen in the past.
For one thing, these two actors have their hands full. Both Mark Schenfisch and Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge, who star in this production, are powerhouses. They share the duty of piano playing while singing, dancing, embodying multiple characters and interacting with both an invisible man and a puppet. It’s like the show is trying to cram as much theatrical magic into one storyline as possible, and the overload is the joke.
Portraying every one of the murder suspects, including a trio of adorable kids who swear they’ve seen worse than a dead body at a birthday party, Dandridge shows her comedic range and mastery of physicality, moving seamlessly between characters throughout the show without ever confusing the audience as to which party-goer is speaking at any given moment.
Schenfisch, who also serves as musical director for this production, has played Officer Moscowicz before in many regional productions of the show, but his performance feels uniquely tied to this production, and the onstage synergy between these two makes it feel like the show was written specifically for them.
Width’s direction is lively and exciting, utilizing the space in surprising ways, and the sound design by technical director Liz Allmon includes lots of fun effects and a “womp womp” trumpet sound a la Charlie Brown to indicate speech from the invisible man, a detail I enjoyed.
“Murder for Two” is more about showmanship than suspense. The murder mystery plot isn’t the point here so much as the impressive abilities of the cast and crew behind what is ultimately a clever and enjoyable production. Audiences should come expecting a laugh or two and some impressive piano-playing skills and tricks.
Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s “Murder for Two” runs through Feb. 26; Fridays, Saturdays, and select Thursdays at 8 pm and select matinees at 2:30 pm Tickets cost $49. www.swiftcreekmil.com