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Review: “Murder Ballad” Isn’t Quite Killer

June 1st, 2013

Contributor Scott Redman discovers that Murder Ballad may not have all the thrills and chills that its title implies. 

Will Swenson as "Tom" and Caissie Levy as "Sara." (photo: Joan Marcus)

The Union Square Theatre has been transformed into a gritty downtown dive bar, which sets the scene for the overwrought Murder Ballad — a sung-through rock musical by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash. The production enjoyed a sold out run earlier in the year at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II and has transferred to a commercial open-ended run at the Union Square location.

The show is billed as a “love triangle gone wrong,” which may be accurate but not necessarily interesting. Sara (played by Caissie Levy) is a downtown hipster getting it on with her favorite bartender Tom (played by Will Swenson). Things are hot and steamy until she falls for Michael, a brainy scholar (played by John Ellison Conley). The two dash off, get married, move to the Upper West Side and have a kid, but when things start to get a bit dull, Sara seeks out her past love and a volatile mess ensues. Lurking in the background is a narrator/club singer (played by Rebecca Naomi Jones) who has a crush of her own…

The writing suffers most from its over simplistic story joined by a dull score that fails to create nothing more than a white noise underscore. The show is set up as a cautionary tale filled with seduction and lust but delivers itself as an average affair dusted with a bass drum and occasional guitar riff. The tempos rarely change and there is a lack of style to differentiate between scenes and characters. The quartet of onstage actors each exhibit vocal prowess throughout the evening, but it has little dramatic effect due to the empty material.

Rebecca Naomi Jones as “The Narrator.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

Rebecca Naomi Jones as the omniscient Narrator and conspirator of the piece is a stand-out. Jones honestly delivers her interpretation of sex and scandal that gives a true reality to her character and performance. Caissie Levy as Sara is another powerhouse belter who tries to sculpt what she can from the lumpy source material. Sara is the most tortured of the group dealing with her demons of lust and trying to maintain her new Upper West Side life. John Ellison Conlee who plays Michael – the older, sophisticated scholar, seems a bit miscast and there seems to be a lack of chemistry with Levy. Sara’s attraction to Michael is never fully developed. Is she chasing his money, attracted to his intelligence or is it just a way to escape her past life living downtown and hanging out with bartenders? Will Swenson embodies his downtown rough and tumble character, but once again, his motivations appear one dimensional.

Director Trip Cullman does an admirable job using the space and trying to give the vacant material some context. The theater space has been configured into a bar and cabaret style seating surround by more stadium seats. The space allows the actors to get unusually close to the audience, creating an interesting environmental tension. This gives the actors and playing space less boundaries as compared to a standard proscenium. The theater’s reconfiguration is the most interesting part of the experience and immediately sets the tone. Being in such close proximity to the actors offers a great opportunity for creative expression, if only Murder Ballad  lived up to its potential.

Murder Ballad 
Union Square Theatre
100 East 17th Street
Open-ended run

Take the jump for a round-up of other reviews of Murder Ballad along with a video from the show…

“The score, as before, is problematic. Some songs are propulsive or pretty or both. But they sometimes too closely conjure “Rent,” and rhymes like “funny,” “sunny” and “honey” make the lyrics simplistic and wince-worthy.

Trip Cullman’s detailed staging helps redeem things. The Union Square has been reconfigured so that the action happens around the audience. You could say that theatergoers are “immersed” in the grubby bar setting, which includes a pool table. But “implicated” is more like it.

For all its edge, “Murder Ballad” is conservative, cautionary stuff. Go straight home, it warns. Don’t let this sort of affair happen to you.” Daily News

“The actors, flinging themselves about in heightened states of passion, deserve combat pay. The golden voiced Rebecca Naomi Jones as narrator teases out the story compellingly. John Ellison Conlee is a strong, bold presence. And though Will Swenson and Caissie Levy are playing stereotypes, they work hard to bring added dimension to their cardboard roles.” NY 1



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