Musical Triangle, All Sides Sharp

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.

The course of love, true or not, runs right through the audience. The designer Mark Wendland has transformed the MTC Studio at Stage II into a seedy Manhattan boîte (luridly lighted by Ben Stanton), with a long bar, tables and chairs, a pool table and a small stage for the (very loud) band. Whether you’re seated at a table or in one of two groups of bleachers, the odds are you’ll have an up-close-and-personal view of the action.

Tom, Sara, Michael and the Narrator rove all over the joint as they act out the collision course of their overlapping destinies. Most of this takes place on the Upper West Side (land of boring security, where Sara and Michael live with their young daughter) and the Lower East Side (land of dangerous behavior, where Tom tends bar and also tends Sara). There’s a big confrontation scene in Central Park too.

While the scenery never changes, you always know exactly where you are. Diverse and resourceful use is made of that pool table and bar. And the Narrator is always around (often swigging from what looks like a quart bottle of vodka) to fill in the blanks and set the tone.

The lyrics with which she does so, by Ms. Jordan and Ms. Nash, are taut, tart and as pungent as stale cigarette smoke. (The Narrator on the back story of its illicit lovers: “Sara and Tom were good in bed,/Naïve, ambitious and underfed.”)

The creators know that inquiring minds, especially in New York, want to hear every crucial detail of their murder stories. And this show, while providing the obligatory soft-core physical descriptions (Tom and Sara share “a kiss like a mouth tattoo”), doesn’t stint on real estate porn either. (“Two bedroom/Open floor plan/Up on the West Side/With a doorman,” the Narrator sings, excitedly, of Michael and Sara’s new apartment.)

No one takes his or her clothes off, which is probably for the best, given this production’s tight intimacy. But there’s plenty of sensual heat generated by Ms. Olivo (a Tony winner for “West Side Story”) and Mr. Swenson (a Tony nominee for “Hair”), two of the more attractive performers in town. They, a very credible Mr. Conlee (“The Full Monty”) and Ms. Jones (“Passing Strange,” “American Idiot”) sing with intensity and hit their emotional marks with precision while navigating some tricky movements (overseen by Doug Varone) through crowded spaces.

Ms. Nash’s score (which recycles several songs from her former band Talking to Animals) varies the moods just enough to forestall monotony while sustaining a fateful and blaring momentum. (Theatergoers with sensitive hearing should bring earplugs.) And yes, you’ve probably heard it all before, the songs and the story. But familiarity is the point of “Murder Ballad.”

And there’s one thing you won’t know until the last few of this show’s fast 80 minutes: Who gets it, and who done it. As I said, the creators of “Murder Ballad” understand exactly the appeal of their well-worn but enduring genre.

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Published on November 15, 2012 by THE NEW YORK TIMES

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