Who says you need a dozen performers and a full orchestra to create a supremely inventive, thoroughly delightful (Ladies’ and) Gentlemen’s Guide To Love And Murder? As Joe Kinosian & Kellen Blair’s Murder For Two makes abundantly clear, all it takes is a pair of gifted quadruple-threats, four hands, a baby grand piano, a nifty plot, an inventive book, and some clever, catchy songs to come up with an award-winning off-Broadway hit.

In fact, so popular was Kinosian & Blair’s 2011 World Premiere that not only did it take Chicago and then New York by storm, it’s been touring the country from Phoenix to San Diego to Des Moines to Oklahoma City these past four months, inspiring audience laughter and cheers at each and every stop, the latest of which is the Laguna Playhouse.

ddd An absolutely fabulous Ian Lowe plays the investigator and the positively brilliant Kyle Branzel plays each and every one of a dozen or so suspects and the murder victim and both of them play the baby grand situated center stage on scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s ingeniously theatrical set.

A surprise party may be what most of novelist Arthur “Standing Around The Body” Whitney’s friends have planned for the bestselling mystery writer’s birthday celebration tonight, but one of them has something extra in mind—firing a bullet through Arthur’s forehead—which leaves would-be detective Marcus (Lowe) a mere hour to solve the case before the official police investigator arrives to take over business.

And what a list of suspects Marcus must get to know in a mere sixty minutes, all of whom are brought to life by a marvelously, magically manic Branzel, giving what may well turn out to be the touring performance of the year.

Using nothing more than voice, body language, and an accessory or two (eyeglasses and an especially ingenious use of a single baseball cap), the utterly adorable Branzel creates (among others) a not-so-grieving wife, a ballerina who could teach Anna Pavlova a lesson or two, a pair of bickering spouses, a trio of pint-sized choir boys with attitudes, and the victim’s aspiring criminologist niece Steph, who immediately catches Marcus’s romantic eye. (That there happen to be two mysteries to solve—the other being “Who stole the ice cream?” —adds to the mystery, mayhem, and merriment.)

ddd2 With its catchy songs (music by Kinosian and lyrics by Blair, who’s got the chutzpah to rhyme “diarrhea once” with “Mamma Mia once”) and a twisty-turny plot (by both writers) that would do Agatha Christie and Mel Brooks proud, Murder For One keeps audiences on the edge of their seats—and in stiches—throughout its no-intermission 100 minutes.

Did I mention that Lowe and Branzel accompany themselves and each other on the grand piano throughout? (Gone are the days when merely singing, dancing, and acting were enough, so start learning to play an instrument posthaste if you plan a career in musical theater.)

With ace director Scott Schwartz helming the whole shebang, choreographer Wendy Seyb giving the two stars just enough footwork to reveal their dance talents, and a crackerjack design team on board (Andrea Lauer on costumes, Jason Lyons on lighting, and Jill BC Du Boff giving us some hilarious sound effects), Murder For Two makes for an all-around terrific tour, an intimate alternative to the biggies that play Orange County’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

David Caldwell gets top marks for his music direction. Casting is by Calleri Casting. Understudies Brandon Lambert and Martin Landry are on hand to step in for Lowe and Branzel in case of murder.

Katrina Olson is production stage manager.

If there’s anything to kvetch about in Murder For Two, it’s that its two stars’ New York base will likely keep them a few thousand miles away from the West Coast for the foreseeable future, all the more reason to head on down (or over or up) to Laguna Beach and catch them while they’re nearby and slaying audiences … with their prodigious talents that is.

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The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. T

–Steven Stanley
April 29, 2105
Photos: Joan Marcus

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