Murder Ballad premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series at City Center and recently reopened again downtown at the Union Square Theatre. The theatre has been reconfigured by set designer Mark Wendland with half the audience sitting on the stage. Between the stage and the audience is the playing area where several rows of seats have been removed for the installation of a bar (where one can actually purchase a drink before the show) and risers with cabaret seating. Just beyond that is the rest of the orchestra section of the house. Stage-right of the bar is a pool table which also acts as a playing area. Between the riser with the cabaret seating and the remainder of the orchestra section, a middle aisle has been included that acts as a passerelle. This provides director Trip Cullman additional playing area beyond just the length of the bar. The 4-piece band is on its own platform stage-left. The lighting design by Ben Stanton has served the play well by helping to draw focus where and when needed. I have to admit that I love theatre that has taken an unconventional tact in its environ and staging. Messrs. Wendland, Stanton and Cullman have succeeded in creating an interesting environment in which to watch a play.
The musical was conceived by, and has a book and lyrics by Juliana Jordan and music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. The plot: girl (Sara) meets boy (Tom), boy owns bar, boy and girl get together, after three years girl leaves boy for an academic with a PhD in Poetry (Michael). Girl and academic marry and have a baby. After 10 years, girl gets bored and begins to see bar owner on the side. Academic finds out and becomes jealous, girl breaks it off, and someone winds up dead. The show is completely sung and is made up mostly of bland rock ballads that all sound alike.
The show has a narrator whose reasons for being there get lost in lyrics that can’t be understood, or that are lost due to those lyrics paralleling another actors singing. Cullmanhas not clearly directed this piece so that we understand the narrator’s real interests. Perhaps a dream sequence between Tom and the narrator might have added some perspective to their relationship, or at least the relationship the narrator wishes for.
Rebecca Naomi Jones is the narrator. She’s sexy, vibrant, gives a confident performance and has a powerful voice. Unfortunately, her role is pivotal and it blends into the musical until just before the end. As the conflicted Sara, Caissie Levy captures the conflict that tugs at her from both sides. In the role of the boy/bar owner – Tom – Will Swenson gives a commanding performance. We know next to nothing about Tom. After the role of the narrator, his is perhaps the least defined of the four characters. Swenson has made much out of not much. John Ellison Conlee as Michael shows range as he moves from buttoned up academic, to family man, to angry spouse. Of all the characters, Michael is perhaps the most dimensional and defined.
Murder Ballad is not without its merits. When you stop and read the script, you can see where the potential lies in this piece. The monotonous score and unfocused direction is really the problem here.