David Saffert is no stranger to intense theatricality. The locally based actor has staged several humorous variety shows for Portland's Fertile Ground Festival, and his work as a Liberace tribute artist is so impressive that it's caught the attention of the Liberace Foundation in Las Vegas.
But his latest role in Broadway Rose Theatre Company's murder mystery musical, "Murder for Two," might be the most challenging one yet — because it isn't just one role. It's 10.
Premiering next week, "Murder for Two" opens with a crime: a man is killed at his own surprise birthday party. A detective, played by Barney Stein, arrives at the scene and begins to question 10 suspects, all played by Saffert.
Rather than running backstage to switch costumes, Saffert relies mostly on physicality and vocal work to capture each character. He wears a simple outfit with a vest for the entire show, and fills his vest pockets with props — a cigar, large sunglasses, a rigid fan — to represent each role.
"There are points in the show where I have several lines in a row, and each of those lines belongs to a different character," Saffert said. "It's very physical, and very taxing on the brain."
About 10 minutes into the show, Saffert plans to ditch most of the props and rely solely on his acting chops to portray each suspect. It becomes "all about my body and my voice," he said.
"I have to be really conscious of high voice, low voice," Saffert elaborated. "There's a woman who has a breathy voice, there's a gangster kind of character, there's one that I do a kind of anchorman voice for. So they have to be absolutely distinctive."
Oh, and in addition to acting, Saffert and his co-star accompany each other on the piano during musical numbers. So why did Saffert sign up for this Herculean acting task?
"Over the last 15 years, this is the funniest script I've read," Saffert said. "I swear, it's something that Second City Chicago or some famous improv troupe put together."
To ensure each character stands out, Saffert pulled inspiration from pop culture. The victim's late wife, a proper Southern belle named Dahlia, has an accent reminiscent of the ladies on the 1980s sitcom "Designing Women." Dahlia's niece Steph, a college student eager to use her criminology major to help the detective crack the case, is modeled after Cher in the popular 1995 teen movie "Clueless."
"Since you have to make them so distinct, (director) Dan Murphy told me, go ahead, if there's someone you know that talks like this, or someone you see in a movie or a TV show, he said, go ahead and use it," Saffert said. "Because it's pretty different coming out of my mouth and my body, even though I'm sort of imitating certain things about those people."
Each suspect gets their own musical number, which vary to reflect the characters'
personalities. A Russian ballerina performs a waltz, while Dahlia gets a powerful 1970s soul tune. Two suspects — a bickering older couple — sing a duet, accompanied by piano. Saffert sings both parts, and plays the music.
"First I sing as him, then I sing as her, and then it's amazing — they sing together," he said. "It's hard to explain it, but it suddenly becomes a duet. The audience will be very surprised."
Saffert didn't audition to be in "Murder for Two" — instead, Broadway Rose founders Dan Murhpy and Sharon Maroney saw him in another show where he had to act, sing and play piano, and knew he'd be perfect for their production.
"To do this show at Broadway Rose, you have to be a piano player," Saffert said "And then of course, hopefully you're an actor, and hopefully you're a singer, and all the rest that goes with it. And that's the same as with being Liberace. You have to be as good on the piano as you can possibly be. ... There's a very small pool of people who can do all that stuff."
Though just two performers will be on stage for the entirety of "Murder for Two," Saffert plans to fill the room with characters — and he predicted that the audience will be "howling" come opening night.
"I know the world 'howling' gets used a lot," he admitted. "But I swear the audience is going to be howling at this show."
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