Will Swenson, Karen Olivo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and John Ellison Conlee in <i>Murder Ballad</i>
Will Swenson, Karen Olivo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and John Ellison Conlee in Murder Ballad
© Joan Marcus
When theatergoers arrive at New York City Center - Stage II for Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash's rock-inspired musical Murder Ballad, they may be surprised to realize they have ventured above 14th Street.

Audiences can belly up to the onstage bar, order a drink, then take seats either in the onstage seating (banquettes and cocktail tables) or in more traditional seating around two sides of the stage. It's an intoxicating downtown-style environment from scenic designer Mark Wendland (and lit to perfection by Ben Stanton) -- and, sadly, the only aspect of this production that fully succeeds.

Jordan's book sketchily outlines the essentials for the entangled relationships that Sara (Karen Olivo) has with two men. First, there's the swoon-worthy Tom (Will Swenson), a bartender at a downtown club with whom she is breaking up as the show begins. Next comes Michael (John Ellson Conlee), a nerdy guy with a PhD in poetry whom she bumps into after she drunkenly storms away from Tom.

Soon the show is fast-forwarding through five years of this unlikely pair's lives together, from their courtship and marriage through the upwardly mobile life they share with a child. But at some point -- and for no concrete reason -- Sara becomes dissatisfied with her new Upper West Side world and reaches out to Tom, who has since become the proprietor of one of New York City's hottest clubs. When they meet, the flame they once shared flares anew.

At this juncture, audiences will know something of what's coming next, not only because of the musical's title, but because the show's Narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones) explained during the musical's opening moments that murder is on the agenda (even producing – none-too-subtly – the murder weapon). However, which of these three characters in this painfully underdeveloped romantic triangle will die remains to be seen.

To their credit, the performers belt out Nash's music with electrifying power. Moreover, not only does Nash's driving rock score employ specific musical vernaculars for each of the characters, it periodically allows them to adopt others' styles to suit their purposes. For instance, it is fascinating to hear Tom attempt to use the folk-song like strains usually associated with Michael in order to convince Sara to leave her marriage.

Director Trip Cullman's staging, which uses every inch of the space, has an undeniable intensity, and choreographer Doug Varone's dances possess a sinuousness that is concurrently sensual and sad. Ultimately, however, their efforts fail to make these characters little more than combustible clichés.