Studio Theatre’s ‘Murder Ballad’ places a classic love triangle story in an unconventional setting.
It seemed gimmicky: lining up outside the P Street entrance of Studio Theatre for an ID check and then getting a “Murder Ballad” stamp on your hand before being directed down the side alley to a back staircase to the fourth floor. And then walking into a gritty, well-stocked bar with a pool table and juke box and beer signs and graffiti.
But the atmospherics works, because the setup establishes the right mood for “Murder Ballad,” a rock opera in Studio’s Stage 4 telling the tale of an ill-fated love triangle set in the kind of place where the customers come to seriously drink and would never be caught in a trendy gastro pub. Two bartenders from neighboring 14th Street spots like Logan Tavern and Black Jack are there to add realism.
Under Studio Artistic Director David Muse, who directed “Murder Ballad,” and Brian MacDevitt’s production design, the entire Stage 4 oblong box space is the stage, with an eclectic mix of tables and chairs, with the audience becoming part of the setting. Theatre goers are advised to come early so they can order drinks from the fully-stocked bar, including beer on tap, and enjoy the conviviality of a working class bar while they await the beginning of the show. There are even small bowls of popcorn and pretzels on each table.
“Murder Ballad,” is a rock opera and I’ve never found rock operas compelling with the lyrics often blurred at the intense decibel level of the music. I had some misgivings and low expectations. That all the action was centered on a hard drinkers New York bar was not a new idea. Eugene O’Neill had set “The Iceman Cometh” in a downscale Greenwich Village bar and that too worked well.
But what makes “Murder Ballad” effective is the four young performers: Christine Dwyer as Sara; Cole Burden as Tom; Tommar Wilson as Michael, and Anastacia McCleskey as the narrator. There is no spoken dialogue. It is all sung, but care has been taken so that all the lyrics are clearly understandable and music director Andrew Cohen never allows the band to dominate the voices.
“Murder Ballad” is a “she done him wrong” tale. Sara, the kind of woman who is attracted to bad boys, has a tempestuous affair with Tom, the bartender of a downtown saloon. There is a strong physical attraction and the sex is great, as is seen when they tumble about on the pool table in a fully-clothed simulated sex act, delighting in each other.
The hot, good in bed relationship isn’t enough to hold Sara and Tom together and they break up. Sara runs into Michael, a PhD poetry major. She quickly seduces him and they get married and move to an upper West Side apartment complete with doorman and then a baby girl, Frankie.
Michael is a good man, but married life and motherhood, as it can, becomes routine and unfulfilling. Sara can’t seem to help herself and is obsessively drawn back to Tom to relive the excitement of their affair and is soon spending afternoons in his bed. It is obvious that the title of the play foreshadows the inevitable tragedy.
Throughout the 70-uninterrupted-minute performance, McCleskey, sings a harsh narration of what is happening and what it portends. All four of the performers, backed by a four-piece band of bass, keyboard, drums and guitar, have strong, impressive voices that reflects the shifting mood ranges of excitement, energy, anger and pathos. It is uncomfortable watching Sara, aware of the pain she is causing, cry as her life spirals beyond her control.
It may be that the harsh reality of “Murder Ballad,” comes from the collaboration of Julia Jordan who conceived and wrote the book and lyrics and Juliana Nash who wrote the music and lyrics. Nash was a rhythm guitarist and singer-songwriter for the band “Talking to Animals,” and performed in New York bars like the one in the play. Both had once worked together as waitresses in a New York Soho bar.
Laree Lentz’s costume design is an effective mix of torn jeans and Sara’s unlaced boots, and Tom with a bartender’s towel dangling out of his back pocket wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, hanging loose and unbuttoned. Michael’s clothes are neat, but student indifferent. It all seems right.
Movement director Nancy Bannon controls the action, including a fight scene. Since everything takes place often only inches from the tables where the audience is sitting, the movement had to be carefully choreographed.
Muse has taken “Murder Ballad” much farther than when it was first staged in New York. There, only some of the tables were part of the stage. At Studio he made a smart decision to make all the Studio 4’s space the stage and it enhances the intensity and energy of the production.
“Murder Ballad” continues through May 16 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW. Tickets are $20-$75 and available at 202-332-3300 or online.