Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Buddy - the Buddy Holly Story
The plot of the New York City based musical includes a Narrator who tells the tale of Sara, a woman who is in love with Lower East Side bartender Tom, but is looking for something better. She finds that in the safe, Upper West Side world of the doting and sincere Michael, yet eventually she is drawn back to the seedy, dangerous downtown bar and the connection she has with Tom, who she continually claims, "makes me weak." Of course there is a "murder"after all, it's in the title of the showbut how and why the murder happens is somewhat intriguing, which helps the show build to a fairly successful ending, including an encore that ties everything up in a nice, fun and infectious way, even if that encore is a bit at odds with the more serious material that came before it.
The 80-minute piece is sung-through with enough plot incorporated into the lyrics to not be confusing. However, the main problem with Murder Ballad is that the story is slight, familiar, and less than exciting. Fortunately, the score, with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan and music and lyrics by Juliana Nash, has a number of repetitive hooks and themes, a few of which you'll probably be remembering afterwards, which help detract somewhat from the slim plot.
A/C's cast is talented, led by Kim Richard as Sara. Richard has a powerful voice and the right look to make Sara at home in both of the worlds she finds herself in. She also displays the appropriate level of aggressiveness when Sara is going after Michael, but also effectively portrays the conflicted nature of being sucked back into her past, while living in the present. The darting looks and furtive glances she displays in one scene with the two men is especially well done. Likewise, Marshall Glass instills Michael with a mixture of nerdy, hipster, and boyish gestures that make it easy to see why Sara falls for him. Glass also has a nice chemistry with Richard, making you believe Michael loves Sara, and you also feel sorry for Michael once Sara finds herself being drawn to her past with Tom. Glass shows Michael's emotions on his face and the several fights he has with Richard's Sara are quite realistic and emotional. Also, their duet of "Troubled Mind / Promises" is sweet and touching, while their performance of "Walk Away," in an effective counterpoint, is full of intense emotion.
Cassie Chilton does a fairly good "rocker chick" impression as the Narrator, with wails and a husky, smoky delivery as she guides us through the ups and downs of the story. While she doesn't exactly pull off all of her moments, her "The Crying Scene" solo is quite effective, with a haunting delivery. As Tom, Miguel Jackson unfortunately has the least amount of range to play, though his solo "You Belong to Me" shows you exactly the type of forceful and seductive person Tom is. Jackson does also manage to give Tom a decent number of sweet moments so that the character isn't all force but has some layers underneath the powerful exterior.
Director Tim Shawver uses just about every area of the space to stage the action. Greg Hynes' vibrant set design is a seedy, dive bar with a large pool table at the center. While the set is static, Shawver manages to effectively portray the various locales of the story, even using the pool table as a stand in for the bed in Sara and Michael's apartment. While most of Shawver's staging works well, especially a crackerjack moment toward the end of the piece with all four characters moving in unison around the pool table, there is one bit toward the beginning, with Sara and Tom fumbling their way around the various set pieces, that is just clunky.
With the four-piece band playing Justin Levine's orchestrations exceptionally well, Mark 4Man's music direction is simply superb. Daniel Davisson's lighting is excellent, always following the constantly moving characters and changing locations with ease, with the added bonus of some great floor mounted lighting that ups the intensity of several scenes. Casey Weiler's sound design gives a good balance to the show, with the singers' voices clearly heard and only occasionally overshadowed by the high volume of the band.
While Murder Ballad may not be the most original musical out there, it does have an interesting idea, with an intriguing plot point of just who will be the one murdered. It also has an intense score with rock hooks and memorable themes. Even though the end may be a bit underwhelming due to the slight and somewhat basic story, A/C Theatre Company's production is full of passion with a good cast, solid direction, theatrically rich creative aspects, and a superb band.
A/C Theatre Company's production of Murder Ballad runs through August 22nd, 2015, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at www.actheatrecompany.org.
Directed by Tim Shawver