By: David Sheward
Continuing the trend exemplified by Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Murder Ballad experiments with environmental staging. Now in a commercial Off-Broadway engagement after a limited Manhattan Theatre Club run, this 90-minute rock musical places the actors amid the audience. Set designer Mark Wendland transforms the Union Square Theatre into a downtown club where the title act might happen at any moment. Patrons are seated on either side of a central playing area where even more audience members are placed at cabaret tables. The four-person cast belts out a tale of passion and jealousy on top of those tables, in the aisles, and all around us.
Julia Jordan-credited with conceived the show, authoring the book, and collaborating on the lyrics with composer Juliana Nash-has constructed an unremarkable story which would be better suited for an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Sara, a wild party girl, breaks up with her equally hedonistic boyfriend, club owner Tom. Drunkenly stumbling home, she bumps into NYU professor Michael who is as loving, steady, and unexciting as Tom was unpredictable, attractive, and dangerous. Flash forward a few years. Sara and Michael are married with a little girl, but Sara is getting bored and launches into a hot affair with old flame Tom. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize somebody’s gonna get bumped off. The gimmick is we don’t know who the perp or the vic will be. That’s perpetrator and victim to you non-L&O fans. There’s also a gorgeous, sexy female narrator commenting on the action. Without giving too much away, the ending is something of a gyp, relying on a device not introduced until the last minute.
The score is sung-through and the pulsating hard-rock songs, arranged and orchestrated with muscularity by Justin Levine, provide an adrenaline rush. Sound designer Leon Rothenberg amps up the volume so it feels as if we are in a Lower East Side booze-and-heavy-bass hangout. The trouble is Nash and Jordan’s lyrics are barely discernible for the first half of the show. Maybe it’s my aged ears, but it took a while to get used to high decibels. As noted, Trip Cullman’s staging pushes the action right in our faces and the four-person cast generates plenty of vocal and physical energy. Fortunately, we never see their figurative or literal sweat.
Will Swenson channels Tom’s egotistical, libidinal drive while Caissie Levy conveys Sara’s twisted battle between lust for Tom and affection for Michael. A robust John Ellison Conlee overcomes the challenge of keeping the decent Michael from being a wimp. Rebecca Naomi Jones infuses her utilitarian narrator role with strong purpose and delivers a shocking surprise at the end. Unfortunately, that surprise isn’t earned and shows what Murder Ballad is about-a gimmicky show. It’s a cool treat to pretend to be in a bar watching a passionate triangle unfold, but the emotions aren’t honest or conveyed in a new and revealing way, as they are in Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre.
May 30, 2013
May 22-Sept. 29. Union Square Theater, 100 E. 17th St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 5pm & 9pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $80-90. (800) 982-2787. www.ticketmaster.com
Photo: Joan Marcus