You might think that seeing Murder Ballad a second time would be less satisfying with the knowledge of who-did-what-to-whom. But such was decidedly not the case when I took took the show in again at its new location at the Union Square Theatre, where it has transferred for a extended commercial run. It was kind of like watching "The Sixth Sense" again and seeing all the clues that I missed the first time. And, trust me, there are plenty, although getting more specific would probably ruin the fun.
I was intrigued when I heard that Murder Ballad would be moving to the Union Square Theatre, which features a traditional proscenium stage. At Stage II at City Center, the show was staged pretty much in the round. The set was essentially a bar, complete with pool table and a stage for the band. Audience members sat at cabaret tables in the center of the action, as well as in various seating areas surrounding the central playing area. The performers weaved in and out of the various audience sections. So, I wondered how they would be able to preserve the atmospheric staging in a more traditional venue.
The production staff members have solved this issue by placing a large portion of the Union Square audience on stage. The rear half and sides of the orchestra remain intact, and the seats in the front orchestra have been removed to accommodate the central playing area. (The balcony is not used for seating at this particular production.) I'm not sure how this affects the overall seating capacity - and thus the show's ability to make a profit - but the physical arrangement effectively reproduces the immersive effect of director Trip Cullman dynamic staging. The Union Square offers a significantly larger space than the show had at City Center, which gives Cullman the opportunity to craft larger geometric arrangements of the cast members and forge some evocative vistas in the process.
Three of the original four cast members of the previous run of Murder Ballad have made the transfer: Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Swenson, and John Ellison Conlee. All are terrific performers, both here and elsewhere, and each of them has settled very comfortably into their roles. The major casting change here is the substitution of Caissie Levy for Karen Olivo, the latter of whom has apparently retired from acting, despite having won the Tony Award for West Side Story. (Will this prove to be a genuine retirement or a Joaquin Phoenix retirement? Stay tuned.)
I have to say that Caissie Levy's performance here more than makes up for the abomination that was Ghost. Levy is a far more nuanced and layered performer than that thankfully departed debacle of a show ever gave her a chance to demonstrate. And, in truth, Levy seems to work better than Olivo here, if only in that it seems more realistic that she would end up marrying the John Ellison Conlee character. It's not that Olivo is any less or more attractive. Olivo felt remote and unattainable; Levy seems more grounded and ready to settle down.
The plot of Murder Ballad features a fairly straightforward love triangle in which "good does not prevail," to quote one of the songs from the show. The show wastes little time getting into the central conflict, and really draws you in despite some admittedly clunky moments along the way. The show builds to an seemingly ineluctable climax (featuring some genuinely credible fight choreography), and, as I said, really kept me guessing. Along the way, we have some very compelling characterizations, with moments of genuine angst for each of the central characters.
My main gripe with the show is, paradoxically, one of the things that also made it such a treat. The lyrics, by Julia Jordan, feature a strange and uneasy mix of cliched imagery and snazzy turns of phrase. Jordan's words (the show is mostly sung-through) seem to strive at all times for an elevated sense of poesy, and the results are alternately inspired and quotidian. Too often, she seems to fall back on such careworn tropes as touching a flame and not getting burned.
At other times, the lyrics have a terrifically evocative sense of metonym, for instance when Jordan juxtaposes sugar cubes and rock salt to convey the uneasy, contradictory nature of the central love affair. Jordan also sets up a very effective callback with her use of the couplet, "Tears look so damn beautiful glistening on the screen/But no one thinks they're beautiful in a real-life crying scene." Later she repeats this phrase, but changes the word "tears" to "blood," which effectively brings to mind the developments that we've witnessed in the intervening scenes, and creates a sense of tension as to how things will develop. Composer Juliana Nash matches Jordan's lyrical amibition with her own melodic inventiveness as well as the judicious use of leitmotif to indicate shifts both within and between characters.Murder Ballad is currently scheduled to run through September 29th, and is more than worth the trip downtown to 17th Street. I can think of no better diversion for a steamy summer night in New York.