It’s getting so it’s not safe to have sex on a stage in New York. Fast on the bare, bloody heels of the stunning “Mies Julie” — a tale of passion à la Strindberg, which opened on Monday at St. Ann’s Warehouse — comes another steamy show that warns us that lust kills. This one you don’t have to take seriously, though. This one’s strictly for fun.
“Murder Ballad,” which opened on Thursday night at Manhattan Theater Club, is a small but savvy musical that panders in style to those of us (not me, of course, and not you) who lap up febrile accounts of fatal attractions. If you find yourself guiltily mesmerized by Lifetime killer-of-the-week movies (or, alternately, by James M. Cain novels), then “Murder Ballad” should be just your ticket.
Conceived by Julia Jordan, with a sung-through pop-rock score by Juliana Nash, “Murder Ballad” is a welcome oddity among recent musicals. It’s a show that knows exactly what it wants to do, and then does it, with no apologizing or backtracking.
And as staged with inventive efficiency by Trip Cullman and performed by a top-flight cast of four, “Murder Ballad” is also self-conscious in just the right way. It acknowledges the strengths and limits of its aspirations while reminding us that the story it relates — of a love triangle with a razor’s edges — is descended from a long and noble tradition of titillating narrative ballads, fit to be sung in Blue Ridge shanties as well as in sleek urban nightclubs.
“From New York to Berlin/Come stories of true love gone awry, of devils and angels/There but for the grace of God go I.” These admonitions are sung in the opening number by the Narrator, a louche-looking gal with the throbbing voice of Rebecca Naomi Jones. She’s our guide through a dark chapter in the lives of Sara (the smashing Karen Olivo) and the men who love her: Michael (John Ellison Conlee), her doting, reliable husband, and Tom (Will Swenson), the ne’er-do-well ex-boyfriend with whom she rekindles an affair.