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Murder Ballad

a Musical
by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash

COMPANY : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 4646

SHOWING : November 08, 2014 - December 07, 2014



A sultry singer takes the stage in a seedy downtown bar, singing a story of “true love gone awry.” Against the backdrop of an unforgettable rock-and-roll score, she spins a lurid tale of lust and murder that unfolds when a New York love triangle goes wrong. Full of pulse-pounding plot twists and powerhouse vocals, Murder Ballad will keep you guessing until its breathless final moments.

Director Freddie Ashley
Music Director Bill Newberry
Choreographer Becca Potter
Sara Kristen Browne
Narrator Jessica De Maria
Tom Jeremy Harrison
Michael Kevin Harry
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A Staged Song Cycle, Redeemed
by playgoer
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
"Murder Ballad" is a song cycle with a somewhat generic storyline attached. Since it’s through-sung, there’s more atmosphere-setting and repetition in the songs than plot. Tom and Sara have had an affair (or at least have writhed together on a pool table). Sara then marries Michael, and they have a child. At some point, Tom and Sara start up again. A narrator moves things along, and we see that all the characters have motive to murder one or more of the other characters. When the murder occurs (in song and choreography), it’s a bit of a plot twist. The characters are all a bit schematic, though, so there’s not a whole lot of emotion invested in it. The murder occurs, the Narrator takes a breath to start another song, and a blackout occurs. Cue the audience applause.

And then the whole rock-’n’-roll show redeems itself with a number after the curtain call. No, it’s not a reprise of the song hits in the show. No, it’s not a serious anthem befitting the somber material of the show. Instead, the actors put on happy faces and sing that what we’ve seen is entertainment. The point is that murder is entertainment (unless it happens to you). It’s a smart, insightful end to a show that up until that point seemed to take itself a bit too seriously.

The production is professionally done, top to bottom. The set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay consists of a tiny bandstand at one end, flanked by a bench seat and table on one side and a bed-like bench on the other side, a full bar at the other end, and a pool table in the center. Their costumes aren’t extensive, by any means, but work well. Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design does a wonderful job of setting mood, working with the costumes to give a sudden black-and-white feel at the point the lyrics mention that color scheme. Dana Hylton Calabro’s props are fine (oh! all those liquor bottles!), and John Evenden’s fight direction and Becca Potter’s choreography do a good job of working safely in a performance space where actors are cheek-by-jowl with audience members. Their work meshes seamlessly with that of director Freddie Ashley.

The actors are all first-rate singers and do all that the roles require. I was particularly taken with Jessica De Maria as the Narrator, who showed two distinct sides in the show itself and in the post-curtain-call number. Kevin Harry (Michael) shows off his glorious voice, and Kristen Browne (Sara) has a voice that rings in the rafters too. The singing of Jeremy Harrison (Tom) has too much of a generic rock singer diction in his song stylings for my taste, but otherwise acquits himself well.

What doesn’t work in the show is the combination of set and sound design (by Angie Bryant). Audience is arranged on the two long sides of the playing space, with cabaret tables around the pool table seating additional patrons. Actors move throughout the space, making vocal entries at times while seated in an unobtrusive position or moving from shadow to light. When the voices all come through a speaker at the top of the room, it can be confusing trying to visually locate the person who is singing. Sound levels aren’t ear-splitting except when massed voices are belting, at which time the sound becomes muddy. Buzz and reverb comes through the speakers at times, detracting from the performance. Amplification may give the impression of attending a rock concert, but "Murder Ballad" would work far better as a more intimate show in auditory terms.


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