0FF-BROADWAY REVIEW: MURDER BALLAD Featured
Are You Ready For Some: a) Dull Old Stability or b) Sex, Drugs, n’ Rock and Roll…?
May 22, 2013
All good is hard. All evil is easy. Dying, losing, cheating, and mediocrity is easy. Stay away from easy….Scott Alexander
Murder is born of love, and love attains the greatest intensity in murder…. Octave Mirbeau
Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid….Mark Twain
My favorite moment in MURDER BALLAD comes late in the 80-minute, straight-through show, when young hunk Tom (Will Swenson, HAIR) has a fight with older chubby Michael (John Ellison Conlee, THE FULL MONTY), and older chubby Michael nearly kills him.
The fight is engaging and believable.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the show.
But the question is whether that matters, or if MURDER BALLAD is meant to be a happening rather than a story.
As a story, it’s ultimately an unfulfilling experience because the setting dissipates the play's impact, and the book is weak to the point of absurdity.
As a happening, though, MURDER BALLAD is vibrant and diverting, sometimes too diverting for my taste, but maybe that’s just me.
Mark Wendland’s semi-environmental set – bleachers on three sides, a five-player band on the fourth, a long bar serving drinks to patrons who sit at tables on the floor, a pool table that gets a lot of action of various sorts – is at best a mixed blessing that gives the audience much to look at, yet painfully underlines the plot’s weaknesses.
Environmental theater can be fun – SLEEP NO MORE, an audience-participation version of THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC we saw at UCLA, TONY N’TINA’S WEDDING – but the fun comes at the expense of story, which may be why the three shows just cited had familiar or predictable stories (Macbeth, the Titanic sinks, Tony and Tina do get married).
MURDER BALLAD is an unfamiliar story. Having the actors disappear into the audience “clutter” so that you have to search for them, wondering if the two customers sitting at one of the tables will speak to the actress who takes a third chair, then if she’ll slip and fall onto them when she stands on their table – while fun on their own – are unwanted distractions from the story.
Especially distracting, because it’s so fascinating to watch, is the hungry eyeing of Mr. Swenson (most of the women, some of the men) and Sara, played by Caissie Levy (most of the men, and for good reason).
Through-sung, the rock score by Juliana Nash really does rock, in all the best ways; some of the lyrics, co-written by Nash and bookwriter Julia Jordon are clever and memorable; but Jordon’s emotionally non-involving libretto robs the evening of anything even vaguely resembling substance.
An oft-cited theory of musical theater: Great music will make a show succeed, if a weak book doesn’t get in the way. Proving that theory are shows such as MACK AND MABEL and CHESS, each with a beloved score and a book that dooms it.
MURDER BALLAD, a four-actor musical opening tonight at the Union Square Theater, though smaller by far than either of those classic non-hits, works and doesn’t in the same manner.
The story pits a passionate, electric romance against a stabile, conventional marriage.
Tom is a young hunky bartender who’s been having a flaming, Sex, Drugs n’Rock-and-Roll romance with Sara (Caissie Levy, GHOST), until he asks her
One wonders why Tom would ask this question, he not seeming to be of the introspective or self-sacrificing school. Then one is astounded that –hearing his question - Sara immediately dumps him.
So much for the flaming, Sex, Drugs n’Rock-and-Roll romance, at least for the moment.
Sara rushes out of the bar to the street, where she collides with the older not-a-hunk Michael, a student of poetry (Get it: the refined mind over cheap physical stuff?), and picks him up to ease her pain.
Michael hardly seems Sara’s type.
Nevertheless, they get married and have a daughter.
But Sara isn’t satisfied – actually, Sara never seems satisfied with anything – so she starts to cheat with Tom, Michael finds out, hence the fight, etc., etc., and so forth.
They’re living in a French Film The roles are all assigned…
Rebecca Naomi Jones (AMERICAN IDIOT) rounds out the cast as the Narrator, and is at the center of the deus ex machina that makes the end of the show the ultimate absurdity. (Deus ex machina –“god from the machine”–was a device first used in Ancient Greek drama, where a god was lowered onto the stage using a crane, and the god resolved the story in an unbelievable way.)
You don’t know what you would do
Until someone erases you!
John Ellison Conlee seems the best actor in the cast, but is also given the biggest opportunity – aside from Caissie Levy – to show his acting chops. Karen Olivo played Ms. Levy’s role at MTC, and I suspect the show was the stronger for it.
Will Swenson and Rebecca Naomi Jones look good and sing great, which is all they’re asked to do.
When you add MURDER BALLAD up - the terrific music, some of the lyrics, the performers, Trip Cullman’s direction, the weak book, the distractions of a happening - you end up with a fairly good time I wish could have been more.
As a happening, it works, as a play it doesn’t.
HEDWIG with a weak story line.
Rating (5 stars possible): As a happening ****; as a play **
The bottom line: Good, not great
Who should go? Rock-music lovers, those who enjoy looking at sexy actors and being part of the action
Do I recommend it? Not really