Halfway through Murder Ballad, a new musical by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan, something caught my eye. An older woman in the audience, attending the show with her older male companion, was sitting at one of the bar tables that make up some of the show’s seating, looking absolutely horrified.
A cast member had climbed onto her table and was singing a kickass rock song at close range. By no means an anomaly, moments like this abound throughout the production, which possesses an immediacy to match its stellar material that makes it one of the best new musicals of the year.
One woman’s horrified look is, after all, another man’s treasure. The in-yer-face quality of the show, which features a great deal of comingling with the audience (don’t worry — there are no embarrassing moments of audience participation), turns this above average musical into an energetic, must-see theatrical experience.
The show begins as the hot narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones) introduces the love triangle that will be our focus for the evening: a hot young thing named Sara (Karen Olivo), who starts out dating a hot bartender named Tom (Will Swenson), whom she leaves for a somewhat less hot poet with a PhD named Michael (John Ellison Conlee). Once Sara wearies of motherhood and her humdrum married life, she finds herself wanting more and ends up back with Tom, who’s now a club owner. Things escalate as they tend to in adulterous situations, culminating in a final bloody act (I won’t spoil the whodunnit aspect).
It’s impossible to imagine a better foursome to take on these roles than Swenson (Hair, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), Olivo (In the Heights, West Side Story), Jones (Passing Strange, American Idiot), and Conlee (The Full Monty), each of whom has his or her handful of standout moments. Jordan’s book and lyrics occasionally leave some characterizations to be desired, but the cast more than make up for the deficits, injecting emotion and shading into each song in this mostly sung-through musical.
Nash’s music accomplishes the task of sustaining the show’s plot throughout its 85-minute run time. A mix of Rent‘s musical-narrative brilliance and singer-songwriter Neko Case’s visceral lyricism, there’s not a dull moment throughout despite the fact that the plot details are fairly paint-by-numbers. Boy and girl split up; girl loves new boy, holds yen for old boy, cheats, etc. — Nash and Jordan do what they do so well that the plot counts for only half of the evening’s entertainment. As we’re watching this familiar-seeming tale, we’re ultimately wondering throughout who’ll do it. Who will commit the bloody act and when?
When the final payoff happens, it’s not necessarily as expected. Is our narrator simply our sultry-voiced hostess? Or does she know something we don’t? Will the cheater snap, or the cuckold? Or will the object of both their affections reach a breaking point? Murder Ballad, despite its conventional plot, ultimately manages to keep us on our toes nonetheless. And though it’s short on the Greater Significance signposts many of us have come to expect of our musicals, it allows time for a brief epilogue with enough self-reflection to provoke thought without hitting an audience over the head.
Director Trip Cullman keeps the show racing forward at lightning speed; by staging the show within a nightclub setting (the onstage bar opens 30 minutes before showtime), its characters and themes become instantly more relatable. That girl there at the bar sure does have some issues, doesn’t she? And we’re more than willing to listen to her sad story for all its intoxicating familiarity.
For those who favor intricate plots within their musicals, or their musical numbers performed at a safe distance, Murder Ballad may not quite gouge the jugular — but those looking for an intelligent, sexy, passionate night at the theatre will find more than enough here to satisfy a craving for hard-rocking bloodlust. It’s one of the best musicals of the year, not least because of its electrifying score and cast, and it begs to be seen and heard in the flesh.