Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse’s inspiration to “bring the 14th street nightlife” onto the stage and immerse its audience in a rock musical cabaret experience pays off big, making up for the weaknesses in the material itself.
The immersive staging, Muse’s direction and the all-encompassing production design more than live up to the hype while the marrow of Murder Ballad, written by Julia Jordan and set to music by Juliana Nash is less impactful.
Peeled from the women’s self-confessed “wild nights” working in New York City bars and the ruminations on those youthful experiences while in the dispassionate grip of a more-mature domestication, Murder Ballad tees up and plays with meaty issues, none more striking than the question of ownership in love. Does commitment in love mean ownership? What if you come down with buyer’s remorse? And what are the consequences for breaking your contract?
This is Sara’s (Christine Dwyer) plight. She’s a downtown party girl, seeking to belong. She initially signs up with Tom (Cole Burden), an edgy bartender with similar interests. A few years later and cold reality fizzles that flame. Maybe they’re too much alike. And then promise, in the form of muted poetry grad student Michael (Tommar Wilson). A few more years pass, they have a little girl, an apartment uptown, and compatibility issues too, but the good kind for couples, which lead to growth through compromise. But she can’t stop thinking about Tom.
“Listen, and I’ll tell a tale,” the narrator (Anastacia McCleskey) sings at the start. “A tale where good does not prevail/A king, a queen, a club, a knave/One is destined for the grave.” The show is called Murder Ballad after all.
But murder ballads, essentially the horror films of a pre-electronic era, are typically fun, if cautionary tales. This one plays too close to home to be fun—until the finale, which drastically changes tone and declares “the thrill of the kill, romance, blood, calamity … That’s entertainment!”—and is more of a sodden melodrama.
This is no dig at the actors, who emote, sing and grapple with one another amidst a sitting audience with genuineness and dexterity.
McCleskey is the strongest vocalist, imbuing the Cassandra-like narrator with a soulful sexiness. Dwyer’s performance is especially strong, as Sara is bandied about like a pinball between men who lay claim to her. But it’s Sara’s own conflicted view of herself that you see in Dwyer’s eyes and face as she reconciles with the choices she wrestles with that gives the performance gravitas. Dwyer shines as a singer also, eliciting sweet heartache in “Little by Little,” “Promises” and “Coffee’s On,” among other songs.
Wilson’s restrained performance grows on you as the show unfurls. The power of his performance lies in the emotion kept in check by the restraints of the character. I thought his voice was especially poignant in “Answer Me.”
Tom is the least likable and least interesting character in the quartet, and while Burdon seethes in the menacingly creepy “I’ll Be There,” his performance (and frankly, that of his cast mates to an unflattering degree) tends to the Rent school of performing. It’s no surprise really that Murder Ballad is much more musical theater than rock and roll, even with a four-piece band consisting of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums driving the score. It would be really great if one of these advertised “rock musicals” would really rock.
What undeniably rocked was production designer Brian MacDevitt’s transformation of an empty space on Studio’s fourth floor into a CBGB-like black-box bar. Resembling its 14th street neighbor, The Black Cat, Muse’s and MacDevitt’s creation left nothing to the imagination. It’s not a theater space that kind of simulates a bar. It is a fully-functioning, brilliantly dressed, graffiti-laden hipster dive. The theater staff and guest bartenders all act the part in this boundary-blurring experiment. Your ticket taker is a surly doorman. Your ushers are hip hostesses. What’s especially cool is that doors open an hour before the show, where you can take in full bar service and a game of pool. The bar reopens after the show except for Friday and Saturday nights.
April 15 – May 31
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $65
Tuesdays thru Sundays
(some performances are sold out)
Director Muse keeps the 85-minute sung-through musical tight and lively. Muse and movement director Nancy Bannon deserve credit for keeping the actors moving around the crowded bar set. The entire team succeeds in keeping focus sustained at a level wherein the audience can visualize the varied scenes taking place outside of a static bar set. Andrew Cissna’s lighting is key in a situation like this, at those moments when one or another actor needs to be picked out of one or another corner of the room.
Laree Lentz’s costumes are right on, especially Sara’s leather pants and boots attire and Tom’s seedy bartender duds.
The immersive theater experience and democratic staging, or lack of a stage, is a concept tried from time to time, but this show makes me wish companies would try it more often. It can work with the classics too. The possibilities are endless and as evidenced here, can be a heck of a lot of fun.
Murder Ballad conceived and with book by Julia Jordan. Music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. Directed by David Muse. Featuring Christine Dwyer, Tommar Wilson, Cole Burden, Anastacia McCleskey. Production Design: Brian MacDevitt. Lighting Design: Andrew Cissna. Costume Designer: Laree Lentz. Sound Design: Ryan Rumery. Set Director: Andrew Cohen. Music Director Darren Cohen. Movement Director: Nancy Bannon. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.