Trust musical theater to take bona-fide down-home folk art and turn it into one more story of life lived too hot and too fast in downtown Manhattan. That’s what’s happened with Murder Ballad, another effort to convince audiences that passion burns more urgently on the Lower East Side than anywhere else—except that as imagined by the songwriting and storytelling team of Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, urban tragedy becomes trite.
That’s a shame, because in real murder ballads—songs as timeless as Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” the Appalachian standard “Tom Dooley,” Cher’s “Dark Lady,” and even Cole Porter’s smart-set parody “Miss Otis Regrets”—the essentials of character, situation, tragic conflict, and rough justice typically get mapped out in a few lean and pungent stanzas. The result is a three-minute cautionary tale about what to look out for in lovers’ lanes, gypsy tearooms, or Juárez jail cells. Jordan and Nash, by contrast, take 75 minutes to spin a not particularly complicated tale involving a club kid (who later becomes a housewife), the stubble-chinned drink slinger who makes her pulse pound, and the soft-spoken poet who helps put her heart back together after the barman inevitably dumps her.
The songs that map out this love triangle’s edges and (not-too-sharp) corners are propulsive enough when required, with a few melodies that strike the ear gracefully, but plenty of lyrics that sit uneasily on the musical phrase or crowd heedlessly into an otherwise foursquare bar. Imagery is prosaic at best, nonsensical at worst: A kiss burns like “a mouth tattoo” and “hurts so good.” (Oy.) Our heroine is “petrified” at one point, “and I’m not wood.” (“Or clay,” she continues helpfully, because the line needs to rhyme with “every day.”)
Songs are strongest when they’re most plaintive, as in the yearning “Sara,” which sits handsomely on the clear tenor of lonely bartender Cole Burden, and Nash’s musical writing is most interesting when it’s playing with the harmonic possibilities of the show’s four-voice casting. (Yes, four: There’s a Narrator, played by Anastacia McCleskey, on hand to help explain motivation and step predictably in to assist when the writers decide, ultimately, that they don’t want you to dislike any of the primary characters.)
Like the Manhattan Theater Club before them, Studio Theatre and director David Muse have staged Murder Ballad immersively, converting the company’s Stage 4 black box space into something resembling the Black Cat with marginally better hygiene. There’s a long bar glittering with glassware and bottles, a raised stage at one end for Darren Cohen’s four-piece band, tables and chairs wedged tightly together, and a pool table so brightly spotlit you know it’s going to see more than merely eight-ball action. It all makes for a reasonably convincing vibe—and some regrettably cluttered sightlines.
Studio’s cast is appealing enough, but more winsome than animally magnetic; Burden’s Tom is less dangerous downtown loner than scruffy, flannel-clad moper, while Christine Dwyer’s Sara seems engagingly sweet but never quite comfortable in her painted-on leather pants and punk boots. Tommar Wilson, by contrast, is entirely at home as the affable, bespectacled Michael, reader of Keats and maker of a happy Upper West Side home. McCleskey delivers all the requisite goods as a jaded nightclub-singer presence who knows before the others do what dark things lovers will contemplate when they’re dealt a losing hand.
The basic chemistry is still off, though, and without the sizzle and swoon a tighter ensemble might have brought to the story’s central conflicts, Murder Ballad seems less a saga about inevitable crimes of passion than a collection of increasingly improbable choices made among people with no particular claim on our attention. As a rock-lite concert, it’s an OK excursion; as a $50 top ticket at what’s ostensibly a theater, it’s nothing to get all hot and bothered about.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$50. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.