Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of The Music Man
The setup involves a bunch of guests preparing for a surprise birthday party for a famous author of murder mysteries. Just as he comes through the door, bang, he is shot dead through the forehead. All of this involves a cast of ... hold on to it, wait, wait. Right, two. One plays wannabe detective Marcus Moscowicz, who, through a series of twists rarely seen outside the murder mystery genre, is the highest ranking officer available to investigate the first murder in this small town (location and name never specified)in generations. Our other performer plays all the other characters, each of whom has reason to have committed the heinous crime. These include the victim's wife, a ballerina who was having an affair d'amour with him, an older, constantly arguing married couple, the victim's niece (a Ph.D. candidate in criminal justice, no less), three sassy kids and a few others. Both also rotate on and off the piano.
Paul Helm plays Marcus Moscowicz, our law enforcement with a past. His character has more sides than a double octagon. The range required for this character is only exceeded by that needed to play the suspects (Kyle Branzel). The best way to regard Paul Helm's performance is that he is not blown completely offstage by his partner in crime (word joke totally intended), meaning he is sensational. At first it feels like the audience is going to have to be a little indulgent as Mr. Branzel slips in and out of his characters with little more than body posturing, facial expressions, and minimal props, but this is a built-in fault of the script. Instead of starting him out a little slow and allowing us to get used to the conceit, he is required to launch at rocket speeds. Within a few short minutes we are completely with him and his oddball assortment of crazies.
The dramatic (and vocal) demands of these multiple roles require performers of amazing versatility, but we haven't even begun to talk about the pianistic demands. Both have to play at more than moderately high levels of competency. These two have to play while acting their role or multiple roles: bounce on and off the piano, switch places, play around each other when they are both on the 88s, play standing up (much harder than one would realize), play from a kneeling position (Mr,. Branzel only), and just a whole range of physical interaction with the piano. If a musical director were provided and he or she had to comport themselves as our two actors are required to, it would probably involve hazard pay. About all I can say to sum up these hugely entertaining performances is that I happily joined the standing ovation, something I almost never do as a reviewer.
Much of the success of this production belongs at the feet of Bruce Jordan, director of all major productions of Shear Madness (the original in Boston has run for 39 years, and it is the same kind of zany piece that Murder for Two needs to be, so this was great preparation). He agreed to use actors who had played these roles before, but not together. This works well, because both were razor sharp the night I attended, about a week into the run. One sequence, in which Paul Helm is voicing a suspect character while Kyle Branzel is acting the part, one can look at Branzel and forget the quasi-ventriloquism going on, they are so perfectly in sync. The same could be said for the entire 1-½ hours, always perfect timing in relationship to each other.
All of this mayhem is abetted by outstanding costuming by Susan Angermann, a terrific set by Ken Goldstein (albeit with one red herring, a five-foot ladder center rear that never comes into play), lighting design by Michael Foster, and sound design by Thom Korp. Choreography for the song "Steppin' Out," a big 11 o'clock production number, is by Savannah Holds.
Murder for Two is perfect entertainment for a hot summer night.
Florida Studio Theatre's Murder for Two, through July 29, 2018, at the Keating Theater 1241 N. Palm Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and performance information, please call the box office at 941-366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.
Cast: Marcus Moscowicz: Paul Helm*