By Richard Ades
Chances are you’ve never seen a musical quite like Murder Ballad. On the other hand, chances are the show’s characters will seem very familiar.
In the first act, young New Yorkers Sara (Kaitlin Descutner) and Tom (Jason Carl Crase) begin a wild affair that appears to be based solely on physical attraction. (Well, maybe alcohol plays a supporting role.)
When they break up two years later, a drunk and lonely Sara bumps into Michael (Nick Cirillo), who is kind, decent, sensitive and, in general, everything Tom is not. They hook up and begin planning a future together.
It’s not hard to predict what will happen next. We know that Sara is attracted to “bad boys.” We know that Michael doesn’t fit that description. We know that Tom is still around—and easy to find, since he tends bar on the Lower East Side. It’s only a matter of time, it would seem, before Sara and Tom reunite.
About the only thing we don’t know is how Murder Ballad will live up to its name. Who gets murdered, and who does the murdering?
The one character who doesn’t seem familiar in Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s rock musical is the Narrator (Corinne Davis). Narrators generally are neutral reporters of the action, and that’s the way this Narrator starts out. As time goes on, however, she seems to be increasingly troubled by what she sees—so troubled that at one point she picks up a bottle from Tom’s bar and begins taking deep swigs between songs.
The emotionally involved Narrator is one thing that sets Murder Ballad apart, despite its familiar plot and characters. The staging is another.
Director/production designer Edward Carignan has transformed Short North Stage’s Green Room by installing a high, rectangular “bar top” in the center, with the audience seated around the periphery. The characters often climb onto this elevated platform or other precarious perches, underlining the dangerousness of their situation. Occasionally, they wander among the viewers, making them feel like they’re in the midst of the action.
Since this is a sung-through musical (no spoken dialogue), the songs are designed to tell the story rather than stand alone. Even so, a few have catchy tunes, and all are powerfully delivered by the cast and the four-piece band led by keyboardist Matthew Ebright. The only disappointment is that the lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out on the louder numbers.
Murder Ballad premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II in late 2012 and reopened in 2013 at an off-Broadway venue. Though the original production reportedly sold out, the off-Broadway version closed after only two months. After seeing Short North Stage’s revival, it’s not hard to guess why. The offbeat production design is striking, but you can’t help wishing the characters were a bit less generic.
Still, it’s fun to see what caught the attention of New York theatergoers a couple of years back. Bravo to Short North Stage for bringing this still-fresh slice of the Big Apple to Columbus.
Short North Stage will present Murder Ballad through Aug. 16 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.