By Manning Harris
“Murder Ballad” is a visceral sucker punch that grabs you and won’t let go. Actor’s Express’ steamy musical tale of a Manhattan ménage à trois will run through Dec. 7, and word is it’s already starting to sell out.
It’s easy to see why. It’s 80 minutes of total immersion into a louche nightclub scene, conceived by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash in a sung-through pop-rock score, directed by Freddie Ashley. There are echoes of “Rent” and the musical “Contact.”
We have a Narrator (Jessica De Maria) who warns us at the beginning that “From New York to Berlin come stories of love gone awry…there but for the grace of God go I.”
Two men love Sara (Kristen Alyson Browne): a bartender named Tom (Jeremy Harrison), who is her boyfriend; and Michael (Kevin Harry), who becomes her husband. But Tom and Sara’s affair is rekindled. “In a smoky club we let the records spin; we all want to touch the flames, but not get burned,” go the lyrics in the musical’s title song.
In my view, there is one more character in the piece, and that is the city, the city — New York. Tom sings of his “New York elation” and “the skyline is my lover.” If you’ve once been truly caught by the city, you will understand exactly what Thomas Wolfe meant when he wrote, “New York lays hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory; he feels that he can never die.” Oh yes, New York is the fifth character.
New York offers the promise of romance more compellingly than any other city — especially illicit romance. Just ask Tom or Sara. And the Express obliges them — and us — by offering the most enticing, lurid, nocturnal ambience that I’ve ever seen in a theatre. And the audience is right in the middle of it; “Murder Ballad” is a very sensuous show. You may feel quite the voyeur.
It’s an absolute triumph for scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay (they also design the costumes). When this show premiered two years ago at the Manhattan Theater Club, the set could not possibly have been more luscious and detailed: from the huge, fully-stocked bar at one end, to the pool table in the middle, to the hot band at the other end where the insinuating Ms. De Maria holds court, it’s a knockout.
You may be thinking, what a simple premise: The girl (Sara) gets married, moves to the Upper West Side, has a child — and is still drawn by the the sexual charms of her boyfriend, and the city. Yes, it’s simple; and earthy, primitive, inescapable. The situation is a powder keg, no?
At first I resisted a bit: What is this? Why no dialogue? No program notes (about the plot or premise). But then I remembered Martha’s admonition in “Virginia Woolf”: “Relax; sink into it; you’re no better than anybody else.” I felt better at once.
All four singing actors are terrific; they perform with complete aplomb and confidence; I haven’t witnessed a more assured opening night in ages.
Director Freddie Ashley is at the top of his game: perfect casting, flawless pace and movement; I have a distinct feeling that “Murder Ballad” has been a labor of love for him. It shows.
The musicians, all superb: Bill Newberry, Bennett Walton, Brandon Hembree, and Dennis Durrett-Smith. Fine choreography by Becca Potter and lighting by Joseph P. Monaghan III.
Okay, this is not a lighthearted piece; it’s extremely sexy and passionate; Ms. Jordan and Ms. Nash don’t give their characters much joy. But the actors throw themselves into the fray with such complete abandon that you’re mesmerized.
For more information and tickets, visit actors-express.com.