Murder Ballad, a new rock musical currently enjoying a 2013 run at the Union Square Theatre (after playing with Manhattan Theatre Club last fall), is some good bloody fun. Here is LMezz’s killer rundown of the production:
Awesome: The space.
This was our first time in the Union Square Theatre, which is the perfect location for a rock musical. (Union Square! Hipsters! Street Bong Sellers!) The show is set in the round, with audience seating in all four sides of the theatre, along with additional lounge seating in the playing space. The upstage section is spanned by a bar, the stage-right portion by a pool table, and the stage-left section by the band. Just by entering the theatre, you can sense that some rock musical awesomeness was about to be had.
Awesome: There’s a working bar onstage!
The onstage bar is a working one during the pre-show, and audience members can order drinks. Closer to the start of the show, the actors enter in character and “blend in” with the surroundings. It is an effective way to establish the characters before the beginning of the show.
Not-So-Awesome: There’s a working bar onstage!
This is not a point against Murder Ballad per se, but to what I sense will be (is already?) a trend in shows that allow you to order drinks and drink them on stage. Both the off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations of Once feature the pre-show bar, and I’m sure many other productions will have doe-eyed audience members that are oh-so-surprised as they wander on stage to order the same bottle of beer they could have purchased in the lobby. Or maybe I’m just bitter that we had to wait so long to have an even readier access to booze in the theatre.
Awesome: Two ladies wrote this!
Julie Jordan came up with the concept and book for Murder Ballad and teamed up with Juliana Nash, who composed the music and co-wrote lyrics. This is the first rock musical (let alone musical) I’ve seen written only by women (If you know any others, leave a comment!), and I hope it’s not the last.
Awesome: The cast.
Most of the cast from MTC’s fall mounting of Murder Ballad have returned this spring. John Ellison Conlee, who reprises his role as Michael, is so believable as a loving husband and father that it’s exciting to see him finally snap. Will Swenson, playing bartender and scorned lover Tom, embodies everything moody and dangerous. After quitting acting this spring, original cast member Karen Olivo has been replaced by Caissie Levy. While I was sad to have missed Olivo last fall, Levy is fantastic in her own right as Sara, the troubled center of the love triangle.
But the definite show-stealer Rebecca Naomi Jones, who is equal parts scary and sexy as the Narrator. She plays the role with great comedic timing and a wicked gleam in her eye, and when she takes the stage, she owns it. By the time the final song has ended, you realize that she has been trolling you all along—and don’t even care.
Not-So-Awesome: The Movement
Director Trip Cullman had the task of staging a sung-through rock musical—in the round. This wasn’t an easy one, and he was effective in having the actors playing to all four sides throughout the show.
But this wasn’t to say that there weren’t a few hiccups. Sometimes the choreography seemed unmotivated, with the actors thrashing and jumping about the stage even though their songs were already making their emotions clear. It was as if someone had seen the musical version of American Idiot too many times and said, “Yes! More of that stuff!”
With all the pushing, shaking, pulling, and running that was going on, it made you wonder how the characters had time to have affairs in the first place. Speaking of which…
Not-So-Awesome: Where’s the passion?
Murder Ballad is the story of a “love triangle gone wrong.” One way it goes wrong is in the lack of passion among the characters. All of the characters had chemistry with one another, and it definitely shows, as they make out on the pool table, the bar, and everywhere in between.
But it may be the abundance of physical contact that dampens the passion. David Mamet says that he doesn’t ever write explicit sex scenes because it will take people right out of the story. I’m not sure I totally agree with Mamet, but he has a point. Murder Ballad’s characters make out so much that I marveled on how they were able to sing afterwards instead of marveling about their story.
The constant physical contact breaks the sexual—and dramatic—tension. It results in actions that are unearned, relationships that are undeveloped, and emotions that are expressed, but not felt. Which might be what Murder Ballad is about, after all.