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A CurtainUp Review
Murder Ballad

Listen and I'll tell a tale.
A tale where good does not prevail.
A king, a queen, a club, a knave
One is destined for the grave.
— The Narrator
Murder Ballad
A scene from Murder Ballad
(Photo: Joan Marcus
Every now and then a small show opens Off Broadway, receives a number of excellent reviews, gets good word-of-mouth, does solid business, and grabs the attention of commercial producers. Such is the case with Murder Ballad that has re-opened off Broadway a few months following its limited run at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II at New York City Center.

It has now been ensconced within the re-constructed interior of the Union Square Theatre. Tiered traditional seating rises from where the stage used to be, with cocktail tables and chairs placed throughout the main floor.

The setting is a grungy bar. There is an extra long fully equipped one (where drinks may be purchased before the show and brought back to your seat) and a pool table upon which everything but billiards is played. Set designer Mark Wendland must be praised for this ingenious floor plan that accommodates the over-heated histrionics that mark this ostensibly murderous pop-rock (sung-through) opera.

As you may surmise from the title, you're a guaranteed at least one murder and a generous dose of lust-filled, angst-driven ballads to propel the story to its tragic conclusion. It's juast like in grand opera — except that this collaboration by Julia Jordan (book and lyrics) and Juliana Nash (music and lyrics) is more garrulously lyrical than it is musically grand.

Listening to the CD before (even after) seeing the show is a good idea as it gives clues to what was at stake emotionally if not melodically. I was impressed by the singing and dramatic performances of John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Caissie Levy and Will Swenson. Fueled by the inventive, pro-active direction of Trip Cullman these four are the heart of what is essentially melodramatic hooey. Murder Ballad is, nevertheless, an extraordinarily visceral and sensual theatrical experience.

When a smoldering relationship between the hot Sara (Levy) and equally hot Tom (Swenson) appears to be going nowhere, at least not in the direction that either of them sees as a compatibly conjoined future, they split up. Sara meets and beds Michael (Conlee), a bespectacled, beardedMFA student of poetry at NYU. The prescribed tension and the potential for murder occurs when Sara finds herself years later once again drawn into an affair with Tom despite her being married to Michael and raising raising a child. (unseen).

What is it about the magnetic pull that inevitably draws the conflicted Sara back into the womanizing Tom's embrace and willing to sacrifice her marriage to Michael? Will pure lust prevail over common sense and decency?

No need to be concerned about what Michael thinks or suspects as Jordan's sometime clear, sometimes not-so-clear lyrics define each character simplistically yet resourcefully within Nash's pulsating music. As we have come to expect going to the theater these days, the sound does its best to obliterate the more nuanced aspects of Justin Levine's orchestrations. The four-piece band — Justin Levine, Conductor, Keyboard, Guitar; Thomas Juliano, Bass; Vince Fay, Drums; — were best appreciated during the more rhythmic sections of the score.

What remains as this musical's most exciting aspect is the amount of erotic heat generated by Levy and Swenson, both dramatically and musically exciting to watch as the two by-lust-obsessed adults. Although not a member of the original cast, Levy uses her strong vocal chops with as much dexterity as she uses her lithe and limber body which more often than not is obliged to writhe in waves of sensual expectation whether on top of the set pieces or on or under the equally agile Swenson. To say that Swenson, who was nominated for his performances in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Hair, is charismatic, is only a part of his ferociously feral performance.

Levy and Swenson appear to be fully aware of the dangerous curves their sexual reunion is taking. Their overtly provocative romantic clinches, do not, however, make Conlee's poignantly dignified performance as the square and rightfully resentful Michael any less persuasive.

Snippets of cleverly calculated suspense are incorporated into the libretto with the possibility of physical harm always constant. There is also a kind of Frankie and Johnnie aspect to the story as it is complimented and augmented with a strikingly beautiful Narrator/Barmaid, played by the tantalizing and subtly terrorizing Jones. Her steamy apparel by costume designer Jessica Pabst, suggests from the start that she may have more to say about this ill-fated affair than "We're living in a French film."

If the audience that filled the theater the night I attended is an indication, the theater should continue to be packed with young people completely enthralled and invigorated by the release of raw emotions, flashing lights, and the relentlessness of the loud music.

Murder Ballad
Conceived by & with Music and Lyrics by Julia Jordan
Music and Lyrics by Juliana Nash Directed by Trip Cullman

Cast: John Ellison conlee (Michael), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Narrator), Caissie Levy (Sara), Will Swenson (Tom)
Scenic Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg
Music Direction, Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations: Justin Levine
Choreography: Doug Varone
Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes no intermission
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street
1 - 800 - 982 - 2787
Tickets: $80.00 - $90.00
Performances: THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 12: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 5 PM and 9 PM, Sunday at 7 PM. Matinee on Sunday at 3 PM. MONDAY, MAY 13 - SUNDAY, MAY 26: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 5 PM and 9 PM, Sunday at 7 PM. Matinee on Sunday at 3 PM. STARTING MONDAY, MAY 27: Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 5 PM and 9 PM, Sunday at 7 PM. Matinee on Sunday at 3 PM.
From 05/07/13 Opened 05/22/13/closing 9/29/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/8/13
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