When I found out that the creators of the musical comedy Murder for Two were premiering a special Christmas-themed version at Bucks County Playhouse, I was intrigued. After all, the show has been a big success over the past three years, from a long-running Off-Broadway engagement to productions all over the country (and a British debut just months away). Would a rewrite for the holiday season change what’s made the show such a success?
Not at all. In fact, Murder for Two: Holiday Edition hardly changes anything. But that’s a good thing.
Murder for Two is a smart, affectionate parody of classic murder mysteries that lovingly sends up many of the genre’s clichés. In the opening moments a famous author is killed in his mansion – on a dark and stormy night, of course. Then we get introduced to an array of suspects, each with a motive. And we also meet Marcus, an ambitious policeman who sees solving the crime as a ticket to a promotion.
What makes the show noteworthy is that while there are a lot of characters – I lost count after I reached a dozen – there are only two actors. Brett Ryback plays Marcus, while all the suspects – the victim’s widow, his niece, his doctor, a ballerina who happens to be hanging around the mansion, etc. – are played by Joe Kinosian. Ryback originated the role of Marcus off-Broadway, while Kinosian co-wrote the show (he wrote the music, Kellen Blair wrote the lyrics, and both of them wrote the book).
Kinosian’s rubbery face and talent for mimicry are ideal for a role that requires him to switch characters frequently. And he shows off an ability to capture a character’s essence with just a voice and a few gestures. For the widow, he adopts a distinctive walk, a haughty glare, and a pair of red-framed eyeglasses. For the town doctor, he assumes a squint and a rasp. And for the ballerina, Kinosian strikes a series of outstretched ballet poses, each more ridiculous than the last.
The more outrageous Kinosian gets, the more irritated Ryback’s strictly-by-the-book cop gets. The contrast between them accounts for a great deal of the show’s humor. Both of these experienced performers are extremely comfortable in their roles, and their confidence and rapport are essential to making this production so enjoyable.
They’re also both excellent pianists, giving the grand piano that sits center stage a workout. Sometimes one man will play piano while the other sings, and vice versa; sometimes one man will start a musical phrase and the other will complete it seamlessly; sometimes they play four-hand duets. Their musical interaction is impressive as their acting chemistry.
Murder for Two: Holiday Edition isn’t a flawless show. The songs are enjoyable in context, but they aren’t really outstanding. And the humor occasionally gets too corny and cutesy, especially in the last half hour. But the occasional blemishes don’t get in the way of the audacious spirit that makes the show so much fun.
But what about the holiday element? What’s been changed to turn Murder for Two into Murder for Two: Holiday Edition? Well, the murder takes place on Christmas Eve now, and every few minutes there’s a joke or a musical quote that references the season. It’s a bit of a stretch, but to the writers’ credit, they’re well aware of it: Kinosian puts it best at one point when he declares “It seems like the writers are just inserting random Christmas words every couple of reindeer.”
But the plot, and the song list, are the same. I saw a production last year at Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the only major change I noticed is that a chorus of Brooklyn street toughs has been changed into a chorus of Cockney street toughs straight out of a Dickens novel. (One of the lads is even named “Pickwick.”)
The set this time is decorated with a Christmas tree and strings of holiday lights – and Lighting Supervisor Ben Fichthorn’s witty use of lighting adds to the amusement. And Beowulf Boritt’s stage-within-a-stage set design lets you know right away that you shouldn’t take any of this too seriously.
Director J. Scott Lapp’s agile production strikes the right casual yet professional tone. The time-tested chemistry of the two stars really pays off, making this new version of Murder for Two a special one.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
Murder For Two: Holiday Edition plays through December 31, 2016, at the Bucks County Playhouse – 70 South Main Street,in New Hope, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 862-2121, or purchase them online.