The premise of Penobscot Theatre Company’s upcoming production of new musical “Murder For Two” is pretty simple: Small-town cop Marcus Moscowitz (played by Jason Cohen) tries to figure out which of 12 suspects killed novelist Arthur Whitney. It’s a murder mystery; perfect Halloween-season fun.
Of course, there’s a twist. All 12 suspects are played by actor Danielle Erin Rhodes — and there’s only two actors for the whole production. There’s also no band. Both Cohen and Rhodes play the piano — sometimes both at the same time — the only musical accompaniment in the show. They’re also their own music directors. They dance, too. There’s countless super-fast costume changes.
And, well, those 12 characters played by Rhodes are all pretty much insane.
“Murder For Two” is weird, it’s wild, and it’s utterly wacky, in the tradition of other fast-paced, small cast comedic shows like “The 39 Steps” and “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” both of which PTC has produced in recent years.
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“It’s like Abbott and Costello. Jason’s the straight man, and then I’m running around playing all these characters. Most of them are very weird,” said Rhodes, an Arizona native who now lives in New York. “It actually makes Jason even funnier, because he has to deal with all this coo-coo crazy behavior going on around him.”
PTC’s “Murder for Two” is also one of the first-ever productions of the show to feature a female actor in either role — Rhodes does double duty as both male and female characters.
The show, co-written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, and making its Maine debut, is directed by PTC artistic director Bari Newport. She picked the show because it’s exactly the sort of two-person production she tries to stage every season. And despite the tiny cast, it’s one of the most complicated shows PTC has done in recent years.
“Sometimes it’s the really small casts that are the hardest ones,” said Newport. “And then you add in the piano, and all these crazy moving parts, and you realize ‘Wow, this is pretty complicated!’
“Murder For Two” requires the casting of two actors that each possess extremely specific sets of skills. Not only do they have to sing, dance and act, they also have to play piano — a quadruple threat, if you will. And not just play piano enough to get by; they have to play it really, really well. The grand piano, situated atop a rotating platform in the center of the Jonathan Spencer-designed set, is almost like a third character in the show.
Fortunately, Newport had one actress in mind for the incredibly demanding part of the suspects: the dynamic, multi-talented Rhodes, who has appeared in a number of Off-Broadway and regional theater productions across the country, including “Side by Side with Sondheim,” and “Les Miserables.”
“As things got closer, and I had to cast people for this show, I was really trying to think of who on earth could play this crazy part, that requires so many skills,” said Newport. “And ever so randomly, I saw Dani perform at Florida Repertory two years ago in a George Gershwin piece, and she made such an impression on me. She’s like Carol Burnett. She’s an incredible find. She’s someone you don’t come across every day.”
The foil to Rhodes’ freewheeling, multi-character role is Officer Moscowitz, who is trying to solve the mystery before a real detective arrives. Rhodes suggested Cohen to Newport, as the two had worked together on another musical that required piano-playing of its performers — “The Buddy Holly Story,” which was produced by the Ogunquit Playhouse right here in Maine.
“I realized Jason would be perfect because not only is he a great musician, but we had this experience together working as kind of ‘weird’ characters,” said Rhodes. “I knew we’d be a good combo. We’re a pair of we-don’t-know-what in this show. But we’re a pair.”
Though he’s just 26, Cohen already has a lot of experience under his belt when it comes to piano-playing for musical theater: he spent most of 2016 playing the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in the national touring company of “Million Dollar Quartet.”
“I think nowadays, it’s really, really helpful to be able to play an instrument alongside being able to sing and perform. You see a lot more musicals that require that kind of skillset from people,” said Cohen. “You’ve got to be versatile.”
Rhodes and Cohen will showcase their versatility with two master classes for area performers; Rhodes, also an accomplished dancer, will lead a class on auditioning for dance roles at 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 22. Cohen will lead a class on movement and performance at 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 29. Both classes are set for the Bangor Opera House, and are $25 each.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s “Murder For Two” runs from Oct. 20 through Nov. 6 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are available online at penobscottheatre.org or through the box office, or by calling 942-3333.