I missed the new musical Murder Ballad when it played to mostly positive reviews and a nearly sold-out run at Manhattan Theater Club late last year, so I was eager to check it out now that it’s transferred to The Union Square Theatre for a commercial production. Directed by Trip Cullman and retaining original cast members Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Swenson and John Ellison Conlee (Hair‘s Caissie Levy has replaced original star Karen Olivo in the fourth role), I can see what initially made the show an Off-Broadway hit, but I have to admit the sordid tale left me a bit cold.
Don’t get me wrong — there are definitely things to recommend this musical love triangle between Sarah (Levy), her husband Michael (Conlee), and her ex-boyfriend and current adulterous lover Tom (Swenson). The incredibly talented performers sing their faces off on Juliana Nash’s catchy rock music. And they fully commit to Cullman’s staging, Doug Varone’s choreography and Thomas Schall’s fight choreography, all of which is infused with loads of sexy style. The action is all environmentally staged on a barroom set, where the three, along with an unnamed narrator (Jones), kiss, fight, brood and play out this sad love story to the conclusion promised by its title. Though not as impactful as the environmental staging in The Public Theater’s Here Lies Love (read my thoughts on that show here), Cullman makes great use of Mark Wendland’s set and the audience members sitting amongst it, effectively placing the story in and around New York City.
No, the problem is not with the performances or the approach to the material; rather, it’s the material itself I found lacking. The story of an affair has certainly been fodder for great drama before, but in Julia Jordan’s “book” (there’s actually no spoken dialogue throughout the show) and Jordan and Nash’s lyrics, there’s just not much there there. Sarah’s conflict of which man to be with doesn’t actually feel like much of a conflict at all, and, despite Levy’s best efforts, the repercussions of her infidelity are not explored with much nuance or grace. Add in a gimmicky last minute twist that doesn’t provide much narrative resolution, and I found myself wishing I had just popped in the Richard Gere/Diane Lane movie Unfaithful instead of watching these attractive folks work through their romantic issues.
It seems Cullman and his talented design team, including gorgeous lighting from Ben Stanton, may have been aware of the substance deficiencies in the plot, and decided to compensate by layering on the additional style. The result is sporadic thrills in watching pretty people do bad things to one another, but not enough heat generated to require a cold shower.
Murder Ballad is playing at The Union Square Theatre
Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission
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