Murder Ballad, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center space at Studio II, formerly home to the Pearl Theater Company, isn’t just a whodunit – it’s a whodunwhat. For this slim rock opera, conceived by Julia Jordan and scored by Julianna Nash, keeps its audience in suspense as to not just which character is the culprit, but also which character is the victim.
The answer does come, right on time at show’s end, but suspense never does. What ensues is ultimately a loud tale of cheating hearts, dragged out over eighty minutes. No wonder choreographer Doug Varone has his cast walking around Mark Wendland’s set in circles for the duration of the show – this is the musical equivalent of treading water.
Director Trip Cullman has staged this seen-it-before story around a bar, which is where Tom (Will Swenson) owns a bar and his bohemian girlfriend, Sara (Karen Olivo) hangs out. Eventually, their torrid relationship comes to an end and Sara takes up with the far more stable Michael (John Ellison Conlee), a poetry PhD. Candidate at NYU. Nash’s actual lyrics – “Don’t make me a promise / People take those away / Don’t want anyone to love me / But I do want you to stay” – sound like poetry to Michael coming from Sara, and the two become an unlikely, if not downright unbelievable, couple. He sells out and becomes a successful businessman; they wed and have a child. Then Tom and Sara run into each other again. He’s moved up a few notches in the bar world, owning a trendy Lower East Side club. This is exotic to Sara, now used to a quotidian Upper West Side life of comfort. And right on time, an affair begins.
Murder aims to be a specifically New York story, and narrator Rebecca Naomi Jones adopts a downtown vibe that hearkens back to the New Wave era, when CBGB was more than just an acronym. And Nash, who cribs several songs from her ‘90s alt-rock band Talking to Animals, represents a time when frequenting seedy bars lent itself to a more dangerous Gotham lifestyle than it does now. But most of the show, despite great rock music singing on the behalf of its four stars (especially Conlee), lacks fuel. Jordan has her characters spend an inordinate amount of time lamenting the mundane details of their lives and relationships, particularly the child-rearing portion of Sara and Tom’s life together. And so the show doesn’t build in intensity at all as much as it merely lumbers along.
There are bright spots to be found, of course, starting with Ben Stanton’s intimate concert-style lighting design, and Justin Levine’s strong vocal arrangements. And Nash makes some subtle musical choices, if you can discern them amid all the belting (earplugs might be necessary for some). For instance, I caught Swenson’s Tom infiltrating the folky delivery associated with Michael to lure Sara back when they meet up again. And Cullman’s foursome certainly commits to their threadbare roles. But the few plot points – including the titular event, which does eventually arrive – don’t add up to drama itself. And that’s a crime.
At City Center Studio at Stage II, 131 West 55th Street. www.nycitycenter.org Through Dec. 16.
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