I love you, I hate you, I’ll kill you. That’s the lurid premise of “Murder Ballad,” the hot and sticky rock opera that made auds sweat when it opened six months ago at Manhattan Theater Club’s studio space. Reconfigured for a commercial transfer in a larger theater, this hot-blooded property written by Julia Jordan and set to music by Juliana Nash still steams up the room with its violent tabloid tale of illicit love, lust and betrayal. The immersive staging adds to the drama by dangling the possibility that one of the battling lovers might land in your lap.
Wordsmith Jordan (“Dark Yellow”) and songwriter Nash (the band Talking to Animals) draw on ancient storytelling traditions to tell their narrative of obsessive love. A fiery moderator (a scorching perf from “American Idiot” showstopper Rebecca Naomi Jones) grabs the mike and extends the storyteller’s promise of “a tale in which good does not prevail.”
It’s a story as old as the hills, as familiar to Appalachian folksingers as it is to blind bluesmen down in the Delta. It begins again here in an East Village bar where lovers Tom and Sara (played with bruising passion and great pipes by Will Swenson and Caissie Levy) declare their crazy-mad love for one another — and then un-declare it two years later.
Like the pounding backbeat of the music, the assertive lyrics tell it loud and clear and put no romantic spin on this earthy story. “Sara and Tom were good in bed,” according to one typically blunt verse. And when they part, they don’t cry and they don’t look back.
Not to rush the narrative, but here’s where it goes. Rebounding from Tom’s rejection, Sara curbs her passions and settles down with Michael, a dependable academic and a very sweet man in John Ellison Conlee’s well-grounded perf. “I’m not here to hurt you,” he reassures her in a lyric that defines his character and melts her frozen heart.
The contented couple move into an apartment on the Upper West Side — with two bedrooms and a doorman, according to one song’s ecstatic lyric — and have a child. But like another song says, “losing’s easy, winning’s hard,” and after five years of being a winner, Sara heads back downtown to resume her torrid losing relationship with Tom.
And with that, the stage is finally set for the show’s operatic ending.
It isn’t the content as much as the context of these comings and goings that makes this doomed love story so electrifying. Every element of the production, including the set and costumes, advance the story and contribute to the impact of the performances.
Everything clicks in helmer Trip Cullman’s model production. Seated on two sides of the auditorium, the audience looks down on an elongated stage set consisting of the long, fully stocked bar where Tom works and a handsome pool table (suggestively lighted by Ben Stanton) that sees a lot of action. Under Doug Varone’s athletic choreography (which entails some terrific fight sequences directed by Thomas Schall), the actors tear around the split set, leaping and stomping and hurling themselves like Apache dancers in some Montparnasse nightclub.
Jessica Pabst’s costumes are equally expressive. Tight henley shirts for Tom (why do bartenders look so good in henley shirts?), glittery Gypsy rags for the mysterious Narrator and boho chic outfits for Sara. In a stroke of wordless eloquence, Michael realizes that Sara is off looking for trouble when she puts on her old leather jacket and black boots.
Maybe you’ve heard this story before, but surely not like this.