"Murder for Two" doesn't limit its mysteries to the crime in its title.
Two other questions recur throughout the fantastic fourth show of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's 60th anniversary season: "How does he do that?" And, "Was that supposed to happen?"
The first question refers to Noel Carey, who portrays about a dozen characters as half the cast of this two-person show.
When a surprise birthday party for a novelist results in him getting shot to death in the dark, ambitious police officer Marcus Moscowicz (Anthony Norman) arrives to investigate. He finds a timid young woman, a bickering but horny middle-age couple, a gang of ne'er-do-well kids in newsboy caps, a ballerina who takes seductive drags of her cigarette, a bespectacled lady of the house who chats a lot despite her husband just dying, and a crabby shrink in a wheelchair who sounds like Jimmy Stewart — all portrayed by Carey. So yeah: How does he do that?
The answer is a network of studied movements and voices Carey has mastered so fully that they might as well be part of his own neural map. As grad student Steph, he flirtatiously leans toward Norman's officer while pinching his waistband, giving away her nerves. Then, in a split second, he plops into the wheelchair of elderly psychologist Dr. Griff, his jaw trembling as if second nature.
Perhaps no moment showed Carey's virtuosic command of his many roles than the time he twirled into the widowed Dahlia and, with an effortless flick of his neck, snapped her librarian's glasses from his forehead to his nose before his feet came to a stop. Overall, it's maybe the most impressive comedic performance I've seen in 10 years of attending shows at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse.
As Moscowicz, Norman may seem less noteworthy. After all, he "only" plays one character. But he's everything a straight man should be, convulsing with frustration at the difficulty of interrogating Carey's suspects. As his slicked-back hair slowly frazzles out, he runs his hand through it to prepare for the show's musical numbers, which see him or Carey play piano while the other sings.
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AUBURN — When "Murder for Two" comes to the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Owasco Wednesday, it…
The music shares the same defining quality as the book of Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian's show: It's wildly, subversively and sometimes profanely funny. The humor that doesn't come from Carey's balancing act comes from his and Norman's madcap energy, Blair and Kinosian's playful dance with the audience's expectations, and colorful language at the most perfectly occasional moments.
That second type of humor brings us to the second question audiences will ask themselves as they watch "Murder for Two": "Was that supposed to happen?"
Carey and Norman start fuddling with the fourth wall before the show even starts, moving their piano bench on-stage while the house lights are still on. The opening night performance only began after a few minutes of them emoting and exaggeratedly gesturing their way through a fun little silent movie routine that saw Carey venture into the audience several times. Then, during the show, Carey scolds the audience when the officer's phone rings before realizing it's not theirs. And later, an audience member is corralled into the wheelchair for a few minutes of sitting in as Dr. Griff.
So "Murder for Two" announces itself as anything but a normal, neatly packaged musical. But even then, it was difficult to tell whether it was part of the show when, midway through, several lights flickered and stage hands abruptly escorted the two actors off the stage. The audience was told they'd be back momentarily — but signage said the 90-minute musical would have no intermission.
When the house lights turned on, I checked my phone: There were lighting storms in the area. So it must be a power outage, I thought, and it must be legitimate. How could the festival have planned such a stunt around the weather? After a few minutes, Carey returned to the stage as Dahlia, improvising around the sudden halt in the action. But, unsurprisingly, he was so good even in that extemporaneous moment that I wanted to think it was staged. Part of me doesn't want to know, though. Because the many mysteries of "Murder for Two" are part of what makes it so deliriously fun.