As the opening song suggests in this rock opera, someone is going to die. Who will it be?
Murder Ballad, written by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, played two successful runs off Broadway in 2012 and 2013. It follows Sara (Erica Close), a young New Yorker who ends a relationship with bar owner Tom (Brennon Meinhold) only to almost immediately start a relationship with the more reliable Michael (Karly Laskowski). A few years later, after marrying Michael and having a child, Sara begins to miss her old life and starts a dangerous affair with Tom once again. The entire story is told to us by a mysterious Narrator (Alena Ramos) who weaves in and out of the action. Is she a member of the story or just commenting on the action? Only time will tell.
Director Aidan Montgomery and assistant director Richelle Arguello have set the action of this fast-paced musical in the bar that Tom owns. The audience sits at round tables throughout the theatre, with a small bar at one end, a bed at the other, and the band on a platform at center. This was a unique choice as it allowed the actors to weave through the audience at various points, but also caused a few missed moments as things were happening at both ends of the playing area. Sound design by Jason Tisdale had a few feedback issues because of the closeness of the actors to the audience as well as to the band directly behind them. Those issues, while probably not entirely intentional, added a level of grunginess to the show. Lighting design by Arguello provided some very powerful and exciting moments throughout the evening and costume design by Montgomery used matching colors amongst the characters to highlight the shifting relationships as the story progressed.
One of the most important aspects of a musical like this is a top notch band, which, led by music director and keyboard player Ryan Sequin, this show had in abundance. Along with bassist Chad Hughes, guitarists Patrick Fairfield and Joshua Story, and drummer Ben Schrier, they never faltered during their almost constant 80 minutes of playing this difficult score.
The other important aspect is the cast. An immersive piece of theatre needs a cast that remains in character while moving amongst the audience and this cast delivers remarkably well. Close gives the main character Sara a fiery intensity, but also succeeds at the quiet, emotional moments well, making us understand and feel sorry for her character as she makes her destructive decisions. Laskowski as poet Michael gave a powerful voice to a role that could have come across as the weakest of the four. While, as the name suggests, the role is written for a man to play. Even while some of the lyrics still use male pronouns, Laskowski manages to make the role her own, giving Michael a twist of femininity.
Meinhold as bartender Tom doesn’t quite have the bad boy swagger that is mentioned several times throughout the show, but succeeds with the rock quality of his singing voice, particularly as the character moves into a darker mental state towards the end of our story. Ramos as the Narrator nails the vocals throughout the show and creates a mysterious and evocative character that you never want to take your eyes off.
It is rare to see such an immersive musical experience like this one in our area, and I am extremely happy that a theatre company wanted to tackle a difficult project that might turn off others. Do yourself a favor and see Passion Theatre’s intense musical this weekend. Someone has to die, but who will it be? It’s definitely worth the ride to find out.
Tickets can be found online or at the door of Bullock Creek Auditorium.
Includes adult language and content: Recommended for ages 17+