By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Nov 13, 2017 at 8:01 PM

Something funny is afoot at the Stackner Cabaret. It’s Milwaukee Rep's "Murder for Two," a farcical whodunit full of shady suspects, frenetic character shifts, multiple murder weapons, plot twists and death-defying piano playing.

As our musical game of Clue! begins, famed mystery novelist Arthur Whitney has been shot right at the start of his surprise birthday party. Now it’s up to a wannabe detective and his Nancy Drew-in-training sidekick to gather clues and interview suspects so they can solve the case before the actual detective shows up.

It is not surprising that Wauwatosa native Joe Kinosian absolutely nails his performances as a variety of quirky characters, from the mysterious ballet dancer, the aforementioned up-and-coming female sleuth and the eccentric widow, to a needy psychiatrist and a pair of bickering New Yorkers who’ve been married for far too long. With a distinct voice and characteristic mannerism for each personality, the lanky Wisco actor plays ALL of the suspects and acts as one of the accompanists for this two-person musical comedy that he not only composed but co-wrote with creative partner Kellen Blair. 

For Kinosian, who credits his love of theater and comedy to a fateful field trip to the Milwaukee Rep to see a production of Larry Shue’s "The Foreigner," this is not his first opening night. He has headlined his musical brainchild for hundreds of performances in Chicago and off-Broadway in New York. Kinosian’s partner in crime Matt Edmonds, however, is new to this show, but he’s an old hand at musicals, performing extensively in Chicago for the last decade.

Edmonds has a lighter load in the character department, since he concentrates on playing the heartbroken cop who fell hard for a fellow law officer only to discover she had a dark, homicidal alter ego. Bouncing back and determined to get a promotion, he has extensive conversations with his unseen colleague Lou, one of the few characters who isn’t even temporarily embodied by one of the actors.

This, and everything else in the show, is a set-up for a joke – or a series of jokes – that mostly pay off. Edmonds has the finer singing voice and keeps up with Kinosian’s hi-jinks both in character and on the piano.

Part of the quick-change genre – which includes "Gutenberg," all of the Reduced Shakespeare Company shows, "Greater Tuna" and "The Mystery of Irma Vep" – and the delight in this show is seeing the actors juggle a ridiculous number of tasks at once: singing, providing their own musical accompaniment (sometimes playing amazing four-handed pieces), changing characters in split seconds, deploying the right props and costume pieces, and even ad-libbing with the crowd. This, they do with aplomb. Their timing is perfect and they have their shtick down pat.

Not only is the show a parody of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, it is also frequently self-referential, with characters breaking the fourth wall with abandon, most notably to rail against millennials on cell phones. But there are moments when, even for farce, the show goes a bit too far. A three-person boys’ choir made up of street urchins from a ‘40s gangster movie feels like weird detour, and the screechy-voiced fireman who spends most of the show in the bathroom could've easily make an exit before he began to sing badly.

The set design, by Regina Garcia, also doesn’t help the show. Designed like an oversized bookcase with kitschy illustrations of key clues to the mystery, the only interesting thing it holds is a doll-house sized model of the mansion where the murder scene unfolds. Neon lights that outline the clues don’t add to the drama, the melodrama or the comedy either. Coupled with a pre-recorded track that drowned out Kinosian’s big production number on opening night, the tech doesn’t live up to the incredible performances onstage.

But speaking of incredible performances, be sure to save some applause for the encore, when these two accomplished actors show off their musical gifts to the fullest.

So whodunit? I won’t say. And it doesn’t matter. "Murder for Two" isn’t really about solving the case; it’s about enjoying the wacky investigation.