‘Murder Ballad’ rocks crowd with murder mystery

November 19, 2012

“The thrill of the kill, romance, blood, calamity. That’s entertainment. Long as it don’t happen to you.” So warns the cast of the Manhattan Theater Club’s “Murder Ballad” in the final moments of the show.

While a disturbing question about the glamour of murder troubles the audience in “Murder Ballad,” viewers cannot help but be drawn in by its incalculable appeal.

This delicious, new one-act musical, conceived with book by Julia Jordan and music and lyrics by Juliana Nash, tells the story of a dangerous love triangle and a classic tale of “you can take the girl out of downtown, but you can’t take downtown out of the girl.”

Sara, the leading lady, has just left the bar where she worked — and her three-year relationship with its proprietor, Tom — when she meets Michael, a doctoral student studying poetry at, where else, but NYU. He whisks her away from her humdrum life to an apartment on the Upper West Side. They get married and have a daughter named Frankie and everything seems perfect for a while.

But when Frankie goes off to school and Michael is at work, Sara is left alone. By herself, she isn’t strong enough to keep ignoring her past. She begins an affair with Tom again, and the audience watches and waits for the promise to be fulfilled from the opening song: someone is going to die.

Although the meta-dramatic theme becomes most obvious in the final musical number, it is a motif that appears many times throughout the script in more subtle and artistic ways. As a whole, the lyrics are decadent but not overtly so, adding a poetic feel to the music. Paired with a sometimes gentle and often volatile rock score, the show at times resembles “Rent.” It’s no surprise that Jordan is a Jonathan Larson Award winner.

The layout of the Studio at Stage II venue is a decidedly less subtle way of making the scenes more real for the audience; The setting could be better described as a performance space than as a theater. Even though there is a small stage where the band sits, the space as a whole is transformed into a bar. Some spectators sit at tables in the center of the room as the action takes place, and at times the actors are practically in the audience’s laps.

Will Swenson, Karen Olivo, John Ellison Conlee and Rebecca Naomi Jones, in the roles of Tom, Sara, Michael and the narrator, respectively, are four powerhouse performers who play off each other and whose voices blend together to immerse the
audience in a thoroughly goosebump-inducing experience.

The Manhattan Theater Club’s “Murder Ballad” is playing at The Studio at Stage II at the New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Dec. 2. For tickets and more information, see manhattantheatreclub.com.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 19 print edition. Olivia George is a staff writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

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