Violence has never seemed as sexy as it does in Murder Ballad, Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan's pulpy and exceedingly well-done rock opera, which has transferred to the specially reconfigured Union Square Theatre after an acclaimed run last fall at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II. It's not a spoiler to say that by the end of the show's 80 minutes someone is dead; we are told this in the opening lyrics. It's the "who" (as in "dun it" and "bit the dust") that we are waiting to find out — and in Trip Cullman's steamy, energizing production, the answer is anyone's guess.
At the center of Murder Ballad is the love triangle between Sara (Caissie Levy), a former Lower East Side party girl–turned Upper West Side mom; Michael (John Ellison Conlee), her straight-laced poetry-professor husband; and Tom (Will Swenson), Sara's bartender former-beau who unexpectedly reenters her life right when she finds herself in a familial rut. Guiding us through the proceedings is an all-seeing, all-knowing Narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the devil in a bra and booty shorts.
While scenic designer Mark Wendland and his team have completely converted the Union Square Theatre from standard proscenium house to environmental thrust, little in Cullman's physical production has changed in the transfer. The downtown dive bar atmosphere, which gave the MTC production a uniquely gritty, in your face allure, has been successfully retained, with the four actors weaving in and out of cabaret tables that litter the playing area, singing and dancing in the aisles of traditional theater seats, and leaping from a long, fully stocked bar to the grimy pool table that doubles as a bed in Sara and Michael's home. Ben Stanton provides the authentic and disorienting neon lighting, which inadvertently projects some beautiful shadows of Doug Varone's athletic musical choreography and Thomas Schall's authentic fight choreography onto the theater's cavernous ceiling.
Conlee, Jones, and Swenson repeat the roles they created uptown, and their work has only sharpened over time. New to the company is Levy, taking over for Karen Olivo. With a voice to kill for and a body to die for, especially in Jessica Pabst's formfitting costumes, Levy fits right into this grimy world, infusing Sara with the perfect amount of innocence and true inner conflict regarding her transition from wild child to domestic.
Given that she's played love interest to the hunky, soulful Swenson before (in Hair), it's no surprise that the sexual tension between the two is palpable, making the love triangle, which is completed by the excellent Conlee in the least showy role, even stronger. That she and the graying, bearded Conlee never look quite comfortable together is simultaneously positive and negative. As the ubiquitous Narrator, Jones remains the work's major asset and driving force, with a demented laugh and a naughty twinkle in her eye.
Nash has crafted a first-rate rock score, filled with memorable melodies played by a tight on-stage band of four led by orchestrator Justin Levine. Lyrically, the show is occasionally bogged down in bizarre metaphors (how a kiss could feel like a mouth tattoo is unclear to anyone who doesn't have a mouth tattoo), but Nash and Jordan make up for faults with a jaw-dropping stunner like "The Crying Scene," a lullaby ballad that ironically equates the action to the work of French filmmaker François Truffaut.
By the operetta's end, there is the promised murder — the victim is not much of a surprise, the killer is more of one. Like the best mysteries, Murder Ballad leaves you guessing until the very last note.
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