A Murder Ballad is an official genre of song all of its own. When it comes to recalling a crime, the ballad can either tell you what’s about to happen or what has already occurred. There are a few famous ones that may spring to mind; Tom Jones’ Delilah is one, The Kingston Trio’s Tom Dooley is another. In the 80 minute rock opera titled simply Murder Ballad, now running at Phoenix Theatre’s more intimate Hardes Theatre, that’s exactly what we get from the newly formed A/C Theatre Company; a murder ballad with an intro that tells you what’s about to happen. It doesn’t tell you who does it, who gets it and why – that’s for us to discover throughout its duration – but it sticks to the traditional rules of recanting a crime and it does it to a high-energy, raw sounding, rock ‘n roll soundtrack.
Murder Ballad was a 2012 Off-Broadway production written by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. Told by a narrator and acted out by three others, the opera tells the relatively simple story of a New York City love triangle with a murderous conclusion. Sara (Kim Richards) has shed her downtown NYC past, including previous boyfriend Tom (Miguel Jackson) and has moved uptown. She’s now married to Michael (Marshall Glass). She even has a child. But a bad decision makes her stray, resulting in a fling with her downtown past and with Tom, ending with the crime that the narrator (Cassie Chilton) has already warned us would happen. “Listen and I’ll tell a tale,” the narrator sings. “A tale where good does not prevail.”
Under Tim Shawver’s assured direction and Casey Weiler’s effective sound design, the show begins and ends with a nice touch underlining the idea that a full murder ballad is playing out; we hear a stylus hit the vinyl followed by the crackling bacon of a well played record, then the live band begins. The show ends the same way. Once the ballad is told, the crime is committed and the music ends, so, too, does the crackling vinyl – and if anyone under twenty doesn’t understand any of that, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Here the band is a four piece lead by Mark 4Man and they’re a tight, talented bunch – a keyboard, two guitars and drums – plus they’re always on view on a raised platform with subdued lighting. When narrator Cassie joins them for the introduction, with her long, blonde hair, shaved on one side, hanging on the other, an arm tattoo and an altogether tough rock ‘n roll stance, she looks and sounds like the lead singer in a late seventies underground band inspired by the Brit punk movement. They’re early, rough-around-the-edges Blondie before the more polished Heart of Glass took them to disco.
The four performers sing well, particularly Cassie and Kim, though it may be that the songs their characters are given tend to be more expressive with a better range of acting out emotion with strong vocals than the ones given to the two guys. As narrator, Cassie tends to remain on stage longer than fellow performers, listening to the other three, leaning over a bar with a beer in hand like a seasoned bartender who hears all.
The issue with the production is the same that plagues all rock musicals, particularly ones where dialog is absent, and it’s this; the clarity of lyrics. Occasionally a voice will slur a sentence or worse, a mic will drop, resulting on something important in the narrative missed. The story is uncomplicated, but it’s the motivations that are important, and with the occasional lack of enunciation or the simple lack of not being able to hear what’s being sung, not everyone is going to get it all of the time. There’s a terrific twist in the tale that comes at the end – you spend most of the show wondering who is going to do it and to whom – but the outcome will still surprise no matter what you thought you knew. Unfortunately, if you’re still not attuned to the overall style of the production and its music, that twist might not have the same impact.
None of the songs will resonate, particularly when you’re hearing all pulsating eighty minutes worth for the first time, back to back – only repeated plays will do that – plus the music is not inspired by anything current; its style leans heavily on previous theatrical rock, particularly Jonathan Larson’s Rent that has taken on its own timeless, theatrical quality and has nothing to do with present musical fashion.
But there’s something more exciting about this new production to consider, and it isn’t just the show itself; it’s the organization behind it. A/C Theatre Company is a new theatre troupe that, like its geographical location, is the Phoenix that has risen from the ashes of companies that have sadly fallen before it. With talent seen either on stage or working behind the scenes of previous productions under different banners, A/C Theatre Company – a name, we’re told, can mean several things, including Alternative Commercial, Artistically Collaborative or the more literal Air Conditioned theatre – has arrived with a modicum of fanfare presenting contemporary stage musicals that are considered underrepresented in Phoenix. The importance of Murder Ballad is not so much the show, it’s witnessing the opening salvo of a new theatre company full of promise and solid talent with an edge showcasing what can be done.
Pictures courtesy of CJ Mascarelli
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official A/C Theatre Company website.