NEW YORK — The new off-Broadway musical "Murder Ballad" should turn down the amps and amp up the plot.
It's a melodramatic love story about attractive young people set in contemporary New York City, without much larger social context. Unless it matters that attractive young people can become warped by all the opportunities available through a sexually charged New York night life.
With loud, emotion-laden rock songs and some melodious ballads, the show premiered Thursday night in an energetic production at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II. Julia Jordan conceived it and wrote the book and some of the lyrics, with music and other lyrics by Juliana Nash. While there's not much musical variety among the songs, the performers are strong and passionate.
The small theater at City Center has been set up as a real cash bar, including a talented live band. Some audience members are seated at tables in the performance area, and can get quite an eyeful of the four appealing actors, who leap around or writhe together on audience table tops, bars made of planks, and a pool table.
Trip Cullman has inventively and athletically staged the 80-minute world premiere, using the full theater space to dramatize the lovers' dynamics. Rebecca Naomi Jones is powerful and compelling as the Narrator, moving the story along with beautifully sung, explanatory songs.
Jones opens the show with the lovely, folk-tinged "Murder Ballad," heralding an important message for anyone involved in "true love gone awry." Heed "the murder ballad's warning/There but for the grace of God go I."
The simple plot: Boy (Will Swenson, sexy and reptilian as hip, studly bartender Tom), meets Girl, (Karen Olivo, sexy and feline as Sara), and they have hot sex for three years. Then he dumps her, singing with selfish hubris that "New York's got four million women/For me to lose myself in."
Absurdly, Sara rebounds into marriage with literally the first guy she bumps into after a drunken pity-party. John Ellison Conlee is effectively teddy-bearish and protective as not-especially-sexy, plaid-shirt-clad, nice-guy Michael. They have a daughter, Frankie, and six years go by in about two onstage minutes.
Then a bored Sara, feeling old and useless (at less than 30 years old?) because Frankie started kindergarten, reignites the relationship with Tom. Which she soon regrets, because now formerly carefree Tom is jealous and possessive (again, really?). With the Narrator singing ruefully, "If he had stayed downtown like me/This would have ended happily," the men have a furious brawl, ending with a death and a nice plot twist.
And there we have it. I hopefully recommend removing all amplification from the enthusiastic band, because the theater is so small that they surely can be heard perfectly without any electronic help.