Tale as old as time. A story of jilted and cheating lovers is nothing new, but the story playing out through a true rock opera set in a Lower East Side dive bar is, and Murder Ballad pulses with the fresh exuberance of its players’ throbbing hearts.
Murder Ballad marks the inaugural production of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II and it’s a hell of a way to start. The new musical (written by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash) centers on Sara (Karen Olivo). When we meet her, she’s with Tom (Will Swenson) but the two have a tumultuous relationship and Tom won’t commit. Enter Michael (John Ellison Conlee). Sara and Michael begin a life together (on the Upper West, naturally), but Tom and Sara never leave each other’s hearts. Guiding us through all this (and making an appearance as a character later in the show) is “narrator” Rebecca Naomi Jones.
But like I said, the story is nothing new. Even the act of telling us right up front that one of these people ends up in grave—the show is called Murder Ballad—isn’t entirely new. What makes this new and fresh and absolutely spectacular is the telling.
It’s one raw, exposed nerve. This is how you get young people into musical theatre: you write the story in their language. This rock opera, complete with leitmotifs and a little recitative here and there, is in the key of young lovers. It’s the language of passionate, impulsive people. It moves like the fiery, intense, fierce people it’s about.
And bringing to life those fierce people is a phenomenal foursome, directed by Trip Cullman (Lonely, I’m Not). John Ellison Conlee (The Full Monty) is dynamic as Michael goes from romantic underdog to enraged cuckold. Karen Olivo’s (In the Heights) smokey voice exposes everything Sara is feeling inside. Will Swenson (Hair) is intense—nearly possessed—and irresistibly seductive. And Rebecca Naomi Jones (American Idiot) oozes sex. That wild hair, those huge enigmatic eyes and that knockout voice combine for the most sensual and intoxicating troubadour you’ll ever see.
I have to see it again. And you should, too! For more information and to purchase tickets (and to preview some of the rocking music), head over to MTC's website.