Dear Reader: With this post, I've finally caught up on my blogging backlog. I've still got some posts in the pipeline (including my Best and Worst Musicals of 2012, as well as my review of Pippin at the A.R.T.), but with the current review, I'm at least caught up on shows I saw in 2012. Of course, Murder Ballad ended its run at the Manhattan Theatre Club's new Studio at Stage II on December 16th, but I'm publishing this review in anticipation of future productions of the show, as well the its upcoming cast recording. -C.C.
I like to think that I'm pretty up-to-date on upcoming musicals and what's playing where in New York City. But I have to confess that the new musical Murder Ballad kinda flew beneath my radar. It wasn't until I got a text from my friend Geoff praising the show that I even had heard about it. (I can get rather myopic once the semester gets underway at the Boston Conservatory, where I teach full-time.)
In retrospect, I can't imagine how I could not have known about Murder Ballad, if only based on the outstanding cast of theater notables: John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Karen Olivo, and Will Swenson. To many theater insiders, these names are gold, and rightly so. Of course, the names of the Murder Ballad writers are somewhat less well-known: Julia Jordan (book and lyrics) and Juliana Nash (music and lyrics), but based on their eminently solid work here, I get the feeling we're going to be hearing a lot more from Jordan and Nash.
Murder Ballad features your classic love triangle: two men and one woman. The show begins with a promise: by the end of the show, one of these characters will be dead, presumably at the hand of one of the others. The rest of the show keeps you genuinely guessing as to who's going to fall, and by whose hand. Along the way, we meet three compelling and flawed main characters, plus a sardonic narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones).Director Trip Cullman coaxes layered, credible performances out of his four-person cast, who are outstanding, to a person. Karen Olivo and Will Swenson emit sparks galore (I mean, duh) as a fiery, passionate couple that meet and break up, only to feel to the ineluctable pull of desire years later. The Olivo character has since settled down with a stable, sensitive, intelligent provider (the suitably low-key, yet enormously sympathetic Conlee), and the two now have a small child. An accidental encounter sets the tragic pas de trois in motion. I certainly won't reveal the ending, but I will say that I genuinely didn't see it coming, and that the authors make the denouement dramatically gratifying.
Jordan and Nash craft the show with a satisfying mix of snark and sentiment. Along the way, we're treated to some genuinely deft lyrics, that are at times chiastic ("losing is easy, winning is hard"), at other times aphoristic ("Some get all, some nothing, but everyone wants more"). Yes, there are some poorly turned phrases and clichés along the way, but as I sat watching the show, I found myself listening eagerly for the next apt turn of phrase. The appealing music has a sort of modern rock sensibility, but with melodies that often lead in interesting, unexpected directions. The authors also make liberal use of leitmotif to call back to early moments in the show (such as when the Olivo and Swenson characters first meet), or to stand in for an off-stage character (most notably, the central couple's small child.)
Cullman's staging takes full advantage of the black-box nature of the MTC new Stage II. The setting feels like an underground, East Village divey bar, complete with fully operational bar (call it the Once effect), a pool table, and a small stage area for the band. At the start of the show, the cast floats in with the audience members. Throughout the show, the cast intermingle with the audience members seated at cabaret tables. Yes, atmospheric productions are hardly new, but Cullman's dynamic approach to environmental theater created a compelling fusion of the material, cast, and audience experience.
I get the sense that Murder Ballad is one of those pieces that's really going to catch on in small regional theaters and in colleges. The piece seems strong enough to stand on its own merit, although admittedly the original cast would be very difficult to live up to, let alone surpass.
One final note: I saw Murder Ballad at a 5 p.m. performance on a Saturday. I would love to see more Off-Broadway theaters do 5 p.m. matinees rather than 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. Of course, this is for purely selfish reasons: if there were more 5 p.m. shows, I could see three shows on a Saturday, and then still have time to catch an 11 p.m. cabaret show at 54 Below.
Problem? What problem?