Murder ballads -- story songs that tell of a gruesome killing and its aftermath, frequently involving former lovers -- have been popular for hundreds of years. A standard in American folk music, they combine the sensationalism of a crime of passion with a warning to the audience that getting mixed up with the wrong man or woman could lead to one’s downfall, or death.
Audiences for Music Theatre of Madison’s current production of the rock chamber musical Murder Ballad, at the Brink Lounge through March 9th, will hear many well-known murder ballads as part of the pre-show music. Then they’ll see a thoroughly gripping and visceral modern interpretation of the form, performed throughout the intimate space by a pitch-perfect, four person cast.
Written by Julia Jordon and Juliana Nash, the 80-minute, sung-through show begins with the narrator (a sultry and mysterious Amanda Rodriguez) discovering a bloody baseball bat that was clearly used as the murder weapon. She acknowledges someone onstage is going die by the end of her story, but the puzzle of who and how isn’t unraveled until the final moments, keeping the show taut and the intensity high.
The love triangle is one of the oldest and most well worn narratives for a reason -- there is an irresistible voyeurism that takes over when base desires, passion, danger, betrayal and revenge are in play and that’s certainly true here. It’s hard to look away from Sara (a conflicted Hannah Ripp-Dieter) as she sows her wild, bad-girl oats with the sexy but possessive Tom (a rough edged Andrew Lonsdale) and then settles down for a respectable life with the staid college professor Michael (a multi-layered Sean Anthony Jackson). Years later when Sara is worn down by her demanding but dull life as a wife and mother, it’s not surprising that she becomes wistful for her days of reckless abandon. It is surprising how specific and poignant her breakdown is, for any overworked, overtired parent who has forgotten to pack a lunch or a permission slip, and feels very far away from the sexual being that began married life.
The pop-inspired score begins with a wailing electric guitar, but makes room for softer songs full of love and introspection. A loud driving beat returns for the finale, when every actor lets loose vocally and rocks through their pain. Immediately engaging, within the first five minutes of the show I was planning on buying the cast album. By the end of the stunning performance I was wiping tears away and wondering if I could ever bear to listen to the heartbreaking musical again.
Music Theatre of Madison has performed in the flexible event space at the Brink Lounge several times, but this show fits the unorthodox space best of all. Director Meghan Randolph uses every corner, staircase and level to great effect. In a room with low ceilings lighting design is always going to be an issue, however. A few transition scenes were left in the dark and there were also some opening night struggles with mics. But actors’ emotional engagement and strong vocals that seemed tailor made for each role make Murder Ballad soar, tragic as any folk song ever written.