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Murder Ballad

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Caissie Levy and Will Swenson
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Anger or intimacy? If one is to believe Murder Ballad, the musical that just opened at the Union Square Theatre, there are no other sides to the human condition—at least as it exists in New York City. One moment you may be screaming at your desperate-to-escape lover, the next you may be willing to sacrifice everything you've created, with or for someone else, for just one more night together. But what makes this show interesting—in fact, the only thing that makes it interesting—is that writers Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash don't even attempt to pretend the emotions are all that different.

For Sara and Tom, the lovers at the center of the work, rage and lust invariably and violently give way to each other. This steamrolls them both in the process, causing them to break up and her to flee to the arms of a more sensitive, home-bound, and boring man named Michael, who's "good enough" to have a marriage and a kid with but not good enough to stick with once Tom oozes back into her life. The fight that eventually breaks out, and for that matter the title's promised killing, are essentially afterthoughts to the core consideration of the sensible versus the salacious.

That situation—one daren't call it an "issue"—may be vicariously compelling for what Jordan and Nash have obviously intended as little more than a steamy contemporary fable. But it doesn't necessarily result in a compelling evening. Because of Murder Ballad's raw amusement ambitions ("That's entertainment! Long as it doesn't happen to you," the cast sings in the finale), you're forced to try to lose yourself in its story and characters, and that proves exceedingly difficult given how little there is of either.

True, librettist-lyricist Jordan and composer-lyricist Nash make it plain what you're in for in the opening number: "From the Blue Ridge Mountains," sings the smoky narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones) from her perch on the house-right band platform, "We hear them sing someone's gonna die. Songs of saints and of sinners." So what follows is an evocation of the "stories of true love gone awry, of devils and angels" that are promised but a few lines later.

Archetypal renderings of the sort that fill such songs, however, are not inherently theatrical; when used as part of a story, especially one that runs nearly 90 minutes, they simply must be substantial enough to support some dramatic weight. Through no fault of the three fine performers playing them, Caissie Levy (playing Sara), Will Swenson (Tom), and John Ellison Conlee (Michael), these don't, and instead register as only fly-by-night strains of melody that you can't help but wonder were left in by accident.

John Ellison Conlee and Caissie Levy
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"You're brighter than the sun / And I revolve around you" coos Sara during her initial assignation with Tom, but we learn nothing more of the peculiar fuel that drives them. So when Michael ("Mr. PhD in poetry") enters the picture, he's attracted to her body, she's attracted to his mind, and that's enough for them to begin a life and a family together, if not inspire them to more than a decade of happiness before Tom reappears. You'd expect that's when sparks would fly.

They don't, because flint without steel does not a flame ignite. And steel is exactly what is missing from both the words and Trip Cullman's staging. (Nash's undulating music throbs its way into your spine, if most likely by dint of its sheer volume.) The poorly rhymed lyrics are heavy on imagery, conjuring suffocating holograms of desires dreamed and denied, but they don't coalesce into any recognizable emotional or physical excitement that might propel the play beyond their utterance.

Not helping matters is Mark Wendland's shabby saloon set. Though everyone except Michael is connected to a bar in some way, and the narrator's spiel is marginally acceptable as an open-mic-night rambling, what Wendland has constructed (and what Ben Stanton has lit) feels more oppressive than boisterous or bawdy, closer to what the material seems to call for. It made slightly more sense when the show opened Off-Broadway last fall in the tiny City Center Stage II, where it ensured you were never more than five feet away from some writhing, sweaty part of the action.

There, as here, Cullman relies on the concept to substitute for the dark and dingy passions the writing fails to generate. But the larger and more traditionally designed Union Square—even with its seating reconfigured into a messy three-quarters thrust—does not make it easy. What negligible hysterics and horniness might exist tend to evaporate long before they reach your eyes and ears, unless you're seated at one of the up-close cocktail tables nearest to the bar (at which you can actually buy drinks before the show).

The rest of the evening is not much headier, though Levy and Swenson kindle just enough heat together for you to accept the opening salvos of their almost-union. They display as much committedness as anyone could and sing with full-throated verve, as do Conlee and Jones—though the former's too-schlubby take on Michael makes it difficult for him to hold his own, and the latter isn't quite magnetic enough to make you forget how inessential the narrator truly is to the plot.

Special mention should be made of Levy, replacing the original Sara, Karen Olivo (who dropped out after the City Center run). The lithe and sexy star of Hair and Ghost gives a deeply confident performance that contributes some vital additional sizzle to the otherwise lukewarm proceedings. Levy makes it clear that her Sara, when presented with the choice between anger and intimacy, unapologetically chooses the first, and everything about her portrayal is devoted to justifying that decision. It's a golden lesson in acting, perhaps, but there's nothing in Murder Ballad that explains why its writers or audiences shouldn't be able to have both.

Murder Ballad
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street between Park Avenue and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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