Tuesday, June 18, 2013

'Murder Ballad': Good Singing, But Not Much Sizzle

The cast of 'Murder Ballad'

Who would have thought that lust, murder, and rock ‘n’ roll would add up to such a tame evening of entertainment?

I’m speaking of Murder Ballad, the “steamy and fun” (quoted in the ads) rock musical now on view at the Union Square Theater after a transfer from the Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II.  

With a book by Julia Jordan, who is credited with the original concept for the show,  and music by Juliana Nash (they collaborated on the lyrics), Murder Ballad takes its title from a style of story-telling song that narrates a crime of passion. “Tom Dooley” and “Frankie and Johnny” are examples that come close to the balladeer roots, but theater composers have also played with the form (Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” or even Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”)

What Ms. Jordan has come up with is a modern take, in which a pair of downtown lovers goes hot and heavy for a while then break it off.  She marries a nice guy and has a kid, but later runs into her former lover, and…

Well, you probably can take it from there. 

Trip Cullman, who really is a good director, has only been partly successful with the staging.  The Union Square Theater has been outfitted with an onstage bar (you can buy drinks there before the show; thanks for the idea, Once), and the floor space is taken up with round club tables, where some of the audience sits.  The rest of the audience is in tiered seating on three sides, with a band on a stage on the fourth side.    There is also a pool table, which functions as a bed. 

The show is completely sung through, which is where its strength lies.  The cast is made up of four very talented singers:  Will Swenson and Cassie Levy are the on-again/off-again lovers, John Ellison Conlee is the good-guy husband (with a PhD in poetry, no less), and Rebecca Naomi Jones serves as the narrator.  The music is enjoyable, and the singers and the band perform with gusto.

When I said that Trip Cullman has been partly successful, what I meant was that the show promises but fails to provide any real heat or sense of danger that might be anticipated from the setting and the East Village vibe.  There are so many opportunities to pull the audience into the show, or to raise the temperature on the action—but none of these has been met.  It’s like the Disney version of CBGB.

So go for the talented singers, if you’ve a mind to, or check out the forthcoming original cast album.   There is entertainment to be found, if not a lot of steam heat coming out of the pipes.   

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