Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Murder for Two
Doesn't Kill It
ACT Theatre / The 5th Avenue Theatre

Review by David Edward Hughes


Richard Gray and Chris DiStefano
Photo by Tracy Martin
In two of their recent past spring co-partnerships, ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre have given us a touching yet chilling Grey Gardens and a gut to the stomach Assassins, shows that are in no way what you would call lightweight musical comedies. But this year the team-up comes a cropper with Murder for Two, a so-called madcap murder mystery, described in the press release as "The perfect blend of murder, music, and mayhem." Uh, no, that would be the Tony award winning Best Musical of 2014, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, whose standout national tour played The 5th Avenue's own house less than a year ago. This two-hander is a cotton candy, lighter than air piece of nothing, in which its two valiant stars, Richard Gray and Chris DeStefano, draw as many laughs as they can out of old-dark house murder clichés. The book, music and lyrics by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair are less than not top-drawer, and more from a used seconds furniture store.

About a dozen or so characters (plus some invisible ones) who figure in the oh-so-familiar plot were plucked from every Agatha Christie novel or Sherlock Holmes saga you think you've read or seen before, and not just the good ones. That worked well in Neil Simon's film comedy Murder by Death—though, granted, he also had the talents of every other star comic actor in Hollywood to deliver his jokes—but I am not beyond calling out a stereotype when I see one, and a cliché ridden one at that.

Kinosian and Blair's murder victim, a rich and famous novelist who relished exposing his friends' dirty little secrets and peccadillos in his books, clearly deserved what was coming to him, be it a shot in the head, a knife in the gut, or a poisoned cup of tea, depending on who happens to be telling the story. Still, everyone at his wake-cum-pizza party has a motive, and it's up to young Officer Marcus to determine whodunit. Mega-talented musician Chris DeStefano slays on the greater number of numbers he must play, does well in the role of the sweet, bumbling aspiring Detective he enacts, and has a fine vocal instrument as well. The real heavy lifting in this joyless frenetic farce, unevenly directed and scarcely choreographed by Daniel Knechtges, is stalwart Seattle comic pro Richard Gray. The pairing of Gray and Stefano and their skill at wringing some big laughs out of a molehill is what saved the production for me.

There is no mistaking any of the characters Gray essays. My favorites are Barette Lewis, a quirky ballerina always making sure she is en pointe; Dahlia, the deceased's widow who sounds like a cross between Truman Capote (whom Gray needs to play) and quirky comic Leslie Jordan; as well as his hysterical enactment of a 12-member boys choir, headed by a lad named Timmy, who may be a relative to Patty McCormack's Rhoda in The Bad Seed. Gray and DiStefano also amaze with their piano duets, which allow them to shine together as keyboard masters and give them and us a respite from the frantic frolics of the book scenes. The Kinosian/Blair tunestack is at best meh and at worst blah, and I might have trouble guessing what show a song was from if I heard it again.

A strong standing ovation from me on the tech side of the show, however. Particularly, Carey Wong's old dark mansion with references to the Bates Motel (Hark, do I see a woman's figure in the window?, which gets the spoofery across funnier and more succinctly than the lines). Rick Paulsen's moody, murky lighting is the perfect complement to the set, and outstanding are Harmony Arnold's detailed and presumably rip-away costumes, which Gray changes in and out of like a roadrunner.

It is important to say that opening night and later audiences, let alone other local critics, seem to be thrilled with this show. To me, it's as I imagine it was when Eve Arden opened and closed in a one night only legendary Broadway flop of a murder mystery mash-up called Moose Murders—a terrible disappointment.

Murder for Two runs through June 11, 2017, at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street in downtown Seattle. For single tickets starting at $49 (starting at $15 for students) and information, please visit www.acttheatre.org or call the ACT Box Office at (206) 292-7676.


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