Feature

Murder Ballad

The story we get here “is descended from a long and noble tradition of titillating narrative ballads."

New York City Center(212) 581-1212

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From the beginning, it’s clear that not all the characters in this rock opera’s love triangle are going to make it out alive, said Frank Scheck in the New York Post. The title of the show, which features a book and lyrics by Julia Jordan and a propulsive score by Juliana Nash, contains the first hint. The second—a bloodied baseball bat lying on a green pool table—is hard to overlook as the show’s narrator, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, sings us an acerbic welcome. The pulpy story that follows is hardly original, but thanks to the dynamism of Trip Cullman’s staging and a “talented and supremely sexy ensemble,” you’ll be “swept up in the action anyway.”

The setting is a big part of the appeal, said Melissa Maerz in Entertainment Weekly. The audience sits in a space that’s been made to look like a funky downtown bar, and each character “seems to emerge directly out of the crowd.” Two of them, Sara (Tony winner Karen Olivo) and roguish bartender Tom (Will Swenson), are winding down a torrid three-year-long affair. A drunken Sara then meets nice-guy poetry student Michael (John Ellison Conlee), and their one-night stand leads to marriage and a family until, years later, Tom reappears and causes Sara to start feeling a bit restless. Nash was the lead songwriter of the band Talking to Animals, and despite the alt-rock energy of her score and the sensual energy generated by the performers, the love-triangle tale itself never generates much excitement. “It’s easy to find yourself wondering, ‘When will we get to the murder part?’”

Yet this is a show “that knows exactly what it wants to do, and then does it”—without apology, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. The story we get here “is descended from a long and noble tradition of titillating narrative ballads,” and they are “fit to be sung in Blue Ridge shanties as well as in sleek urban nightclubs.” Jordan’s lyrics are “taut, tart, and as pungent as stale cigarette smoke,” which lends the story the appeal of a good gossip column. So, yes, “you’ve probably heard it all before.” But “familiarity is the point.” That’s what makes it a guilty pleasure.

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