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Murder Ballad synopsis: This intimate, sung-through musical by playwright Julia Jordan and songwriter Juliana Nash is energized, dirty fun: a blend of pulpy storytelling, radio-ready rock and environmental theatrics, enacted by a fearless, sexy cast. After a successful run at Manhattan Theatre Club last year, the show is now reopening at the larger Union Square Theatre.
Theater review by David Cote
This is turning into the summer of immersive pop musicals. The interactive fun began at the Public with the discotastic Here Lies Love, then crested in a spray of vodka with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. But I’m afraid the trendlet ends on a sour whimper with the Off Broadway transfer of Murder Ballad. Whereas this rock-driven tale of self-destructive lust and revenge was a grungy thrill in the close quarters of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II in the fall, it seems diffuse and thin in the spacious environs of Union Square Theatre, not quite the mind-blowing event you would expect for $80. Yes, director Trip Cullman’s boundary-blurring staging is in-your-face; you are so close to the actors, you could touch them. It’s the material that rarely makes deep contact.
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Juliana Nash's sung-through score includes some radio-ready tunes (“Mouth Tattoo” and “Little by Little” will stick with you) but falls prey to the fate of many rock songs in the theater: repetitive song structures, a sameness of tone and a tendency to flatten characters into urges and attitudes. That isn’t the case with all rock musicals, but Murder Ballad falls between something truly dangerous and fresh and a slightly hipper, less populated version of Rent. Julia Jordan’s story is a morality tale that tries not to preach: Hard-drinking, esteem-challenged Sara (Caissie Levy) finds herself torn between bad-boy bartender Tom (Will Swenson) and safe, dependable Michael (John Ellison Conlee). Slinkily mysterious Rebecca Naomi Jones narrates the action from the sidelines and, at a crucial point, enters the plot.
A critic feels churlish praising a show one season and expressing reservations the next, but Murder Ballad comes across as slight and two-dimensional, especially on second viewing—despite gutsy performances and engaging visuals. It’s like an alluring woman you meet at a bar who, through extended conversation, seems less and less fascinating.—Theater review by David Cote
[Note: The following is a review of the 2012 production at Manhattan Theatre Club. Murder Ballad is now running at the Union Square Theatre, with Caissie Levy in the role formerly played by Karen Olivo.]
This intimate, sung-through musical by playwright Julia Jordan and songwriter Juliana Nash is the inaugural production of Manhattan Theatre Club’s (unimaginatively titled) Studio at Stage II, a platform for presumably daring new work. To be sure, the cabaret seating and onstage full-service bar herald a loosened-up, downtownish vibe. And I doubt that many MTC offerings have a preshow mix that includes Peaches’s “Fuck the Pain Away” (the deathless lyric “suckin’ on my titties / like you wanted me” greets staid subscribers picking their way through tables). Luckily, the edginess isn’t all window dressing. Murder Ballad is energized, dirty fun, a blend of pulpy storytelling, radio-ready rock and environmental theatrics enacted by a fearless, sexy cast.
Right off, we know the night will end in tears. A bloody baseball bat lies on the green-felt pool table, presaging a violent end to a love triangle (or is it a quadrangle?). Around the space, Jordan and Nash’s characters take their places to enact the urban tragedy. There’s hard-drinking, self-wrecking Sara (Karen Olivo), in torrid love with bad-boy bartender Tom (Will Swenson). Meanwhile, nice guy Michael (John Ellison Conlee) offers Sara constancy and loyalty. Narrating these romantic agonies is vampy and luscious Rebecca Naomi Jones. Each performer brings oodles of charisma and strong singing chops. Olivo is a particular knockout, mixing rue and rage to dynamic effect.
If the piece wobbles a touch between rock-song cycle and story-driven musical, at least director Trip Cullman keeps it roaring along, with actors expertly navigating close quarters (and a brief but sensational fight scene). So grab a beer, get a table and make like you’re at a rock concert—because you sorta are.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote