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Murder Ballad

  • Theater, Musicals
  • 2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

The style is right, but the substance is short in this too-slight morality-tale musical.

This moody rock musical by the playwright Julia Jordan and musician Juliana Nash doesn’t get much deeper than mood in Bailiwick Chicago’s production. And even then, it doesn’t always get the mood right. The nearly sung-through, 75-minute piece follows sensual self-sabotager Sara (Amanda Horvath) from a drunken, torrid affair with bad boy Tom (Chris Logan) to a steadier relationship with nice guy poet Michael (Matt W. Miles), who gives her a comfortable marriage and a kid to adore.

But as the authors skip ahead a few years, Sara gets bored with Manhattan momhood and secretly rekindles a relationship with Tom, who’s ready to throw over his new girlfriend—and turns threatening when Sara guiltily tries to break things off. As the teasing narrator (Camille Robinson), not to mention the show’s title, suggest, we’re headed for a violent ending; the question is who’s a killer and who gets killed.

Nash’s tunes are more authentically rock songs than much of what passes for such in “rock musicals,” and director James Beaudry’s four-person cast has the vocal chops for it. Jordan’s lyrics, on the other hand, tend toward the awkward, either self-consciously grungy (I’m still giggling inappropriately at the titular metaphor of “Mouth Tattoo”) or self-consciously literary (“like Proust and that damn madeleine”).

Perhaps naming your musical for a genre lends itself to the generic, but the morality tale here is just awfully slight. Neither of the story’s men has any defining characteristics beyond love or lust for Sara; the structure of the piece feels like 65 minutes of setup, five minutes of climax (and a foreseeable Big Twist) and five minutes of forced catharsis.

Bailiwick’s semi-immersive staging doesn’t help much: The funky performing space is partially ringed by cabaret tables for an attempted rock-club vibe, but the majority of the audience is crammed into traditional seating at a remove from the performers and with challenging sightlines. My friend and I were wedged between a rear wall and the stage manager’s booth, with legroom so tight that by the time we caught on that the onstage bar was serving complimentary drinks preshow, we felt too bad about having to climb back over our seat mates to get a round. That's so not rock & roll.

Bailiwick Chicago at Flat Iron Arts Building. Book and lyrics by Julia Jordan. Music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. Directed by James Beaudry. With Amanda Horvath, Chris Logan, Matt W. Miles, Camille Robinson. Running time: 1hr 15mins; no intermission.


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