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When Murder's Awfully Fun Murder Ballad turns viciousness into sexy entertainment

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

It's right there in the title. By the end of  Murder Ballad, someone's going to die.

But that crime isn't what defines this new rock musical from Manhattan Theatre Club, now at City Center in the Studio at Stage II. It's what happens around the murder---the context and the staging of the deed---that gives the show its point of view.

With a book by Julia Jordan and a score by Jordan and Juliana Nash, <i>Murder Ballad</i> immediately announces it's telling a story. In the opening moments, a narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones) prepares us for a deadly love triangle featuring a former party girl (Karen Olivo), the rocker she used to love (Will Swenson), and the sensible man she settles down with (John Ellison Conlee.)

But the narrator also says there's a larger point about the allure of violent stories. The show is trying to hit our guts and our minds at the same time.

That informs Mark Wendland's set, which turns the Studio at Stage II into a functioning bar. Some audience members are on the perimeter, but the rest are at tables in the middle of the room, with the action swirling around them. "We felt this immersive experience would heighten the danger of the piece," says director Trip Cullman. "People are having nervous breakdowns and trying to kill each other and having sex two feet away from the audience."

This can be challenging for the cast. "The actors will say they feel like they're in a movie because they have to calibrate the intensity of their performances to such a realistic extent," Cullman says, adding that a typically theatrical reaction might seem unnecessarily large to a viewer just six inches away.

For Jones, who's had starring roles in Broadway's American Idiot and Passing Strange, the intimacy is not always comfortable. "Last night, I looked at somebody's face, and they clearly were not excited to have their face looked at," she says. "It's been kind of tough to accept that people's faces are going to do whatever people's faces are going to do. It's a learning process right now. It's like, 'Suck it up and tell yourself that what you're doing is what you're supposed to be doing."

Of course, nobody wants the patrons to shut down, and early previews have taught the team when to pull back. Cullman says, "In the more intimate, more emotionally fraught moments, there's nothing worse than having an audience member feel like they're immersed in the show, because all of a sudden there's a light on them because the actors are so close to them. So I've adjusted the staging in those moments to give the audience little more breathing room.

"But in other moments, when it's more like a rock concert, or when the show is more celebratory or has more positive emotional content, the audience thinks it's fun that they're a part of it. When Will is gyrating on top of an audience member, they're into it."

The show's storytelling style isn't only about the audience, though. The actors also have to work that double consciousness---the idea of telling a story and commenting on it---into their performances. That's especially true of Jones, whose narrator enters the story in a surprising way near the climax. "I think in the beginning, she's forgotten [her identity,]" says the actress. "In my mind, I'm destined to play this record over and over again, and each time I tell the story, it unfolds before me. I'm aware at the beginning that I have to tell this story, and I'm aware it ends badly, but as the story goes on, I'm destined to get more involved with it and see how it plays out."

In other words, instead of indicating what the narrator will become, Jones lets herself "discover" her role every night. "It allows me to separate the heightened body language and physical choices of the narrator from my 'human' character," she says. It also lets her end the show as a woman who both feels the story and gets a kick out of telling it. "I think that's why I end up doomed," she says. "Doomed to tell the story over and over again."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus