By Daniel Skora
It’s smart, it’s sexy, and it’s explosive. It’s a boy-meets-girl-meets-boy story that’s being given a totally contemporary treatment in the rock musical “Murder Ballad”. You can see it at Detroit Public Theatre where it’s being performed in an exciting and highly entertaining production.
Its story is both big-city and tragic. While waiting to catch the break that will allow them entry into New York City’s entertainment business, Sara (Arianna Bergamaschi) and Tom (Rusty Mewha) have been carrying on a relationship for a couple of years. Tom works at a bar and is your typical street-smart bad boy. Sara is a wholesome sort but likes the excitement Tom generates. But the fast life has a habit of wearing a person down. Wandering around one night in a drunken stupor after breaking up with Tom, Sara is helped home by Michael (Eric Gutman), an affable young man who is working towards his Ph. D in poetry. Michael stays the night and the two begin a relationship.
“Murder Ballad” is told entirely in song with hardly a whisper of dialogue. The murder ballad is in fact a traditional kind of song that deals specifically with acts of killing. Here the story is helped along by a character called the Narrator (Arielle Crosby), who serves as commentator, does lead-ins for the three characters, and is herself a vital factor in the story.
The story jumps ahead nearly a decade. Sara and Michael are now married and have a young daughter. But the ordinary routines involved with being a wife and mother have a way of becoming monotonous. Sara misses the excitement of the clubs, the parties … and Tom. By now, Tom has given up any dreams of becoming a performer. He’s the owner of the Kings Club, a bar and band establishment. One day, he picks up a telephone and calls an old friend…
What would a murder ballad be without a murder? Who kills who and how is part of the show’s enjoyment and something best left for an audience to discover. With “Murder Ballad”, Detroit Public Theatre remains true to its mission of bringing edgy “Detroit-style” theatre to downtown Detroit and southeastern Michigan audiences. “Murder Ballad” is more than edgy: it’s sensual, it’s violent, and it totally rocks. The entire set (by Monika Essen) looks like a club itself, with a nicely stocked bar, a pool table that does double duty as a thrust stage, and a four-piece band (Jamie Reed directs and plays piano, Jeff Sugamosto on guitar, Mike Shriver on bass, and Shawn Neil on drums) overlooking the entire theatre.
“Murder Ballad” is directed by Courtney Burkett, and her first best decision directing was her casting picks. Bergamaschi, Gutman, Mewha, and Crosby not only are accomplished actors, but have great voices, but as well. The blocking is exceptional as well, with constant movement an important part of the show’s energy. Seating is on three sides with tables set up in front of each bank of seats to give the entire show a true club atmosphere. By all means sit at one of the tables for a close-up view of the show and the feeling of being totally immersed in the production.
Edgy, sexy, and explosive sound like adjectives used to bring in a young adult audience, and yes, they are certainly a target audience and should enjoy the show. But even though this reviewer’s edgy sexy and explosive days are (mostly) behind him, “Murder Ballad” was as enjoyable a show as he is apt to see anywhere this theatre season. The music harkens back to rock before it became metalized and synthesized and the storyline presents two divergent paths the likes of which almost everyone must eventually make a choice. See the show for an afternoon or evening of vibrant, well-crafted theatre.
The show is conceived by and with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan while music and lyrics are by Juliana Nash. Costume design is by Katherine Nelson, choreography by Jill Dion, and lighting design courtesy of Cecilia Durbin. “Murder Ballad” runs through October 23rd. Tickets are available online at www.detroitpublictheatre.org, by phone at 313.576.5111, or in person at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra box office. Performances of Detroit Public Theatre take place at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center located at 3711 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.