Call it Chekhov’s baseball bat: Near the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll musical Murder Ballad, someone picks up a bat and swings it. By the end, that bat will inflict major damage on someone’s skull — this production is called Murder Ballad for a reason — though it might not happen in the way you’d expect. There’s a love triangle involved, but it’s hard to tell who will end up as the killer and who will be the victim. Sara (In the Heights’ Karen Olivo) has fallen for Tom (Hair’s Will Swenson), a New York bartender and bad boyfriend. But when Tom admits he wants to see other women, Sara finds herself in a drunken tryst with nice guy Michael (John Ellison Conlee), a poetry student at NYU. Their one-night stand ends up lasting for years, through a marriage and kids, until Sara runs into Tom again and discovers that she misses her old life. Cue the torch songs.
The best thing about Murder Ballad is that all of this dive-bar drama takes place inside what feels like an actual bar. As you walk into Manhattan Theater Club’s Studio at Stage II, there’s a rock band on stage, and you have to maneuver around a pool table to get to your seat. Nearby, Tom is cleaning glasses and pouring drinks. When the band launches into the first song — they play live throughout the production — Sara, Tom, Michael, and an unnamed barmaid (American Idiot’s Rebecca Naomi Jones), who also serves as the narrator, seem to emerge directly out of the crowd, pushing their way through the room and dancing on tables where some of the braver audience members are sitting. The whole thing genuinely feels like a show at a tiny Lower East Side club.
And it sounds like a show at a tiny club, too. The concept, book, and lyrics come from Julia Jordan (Boy, Tatjana in Color), and the music was composed by Juliana Nash, who fronted the alt-rock band Talking to Animals during the ’90s. Nash clearly understands that the best rock musicals rely on the same kinds of songs you’d hear on the radio, not some Rogers and Hammstein-friendly theme with a guitar solo tacked on to it. Both Olivo and Jones would make phenomenal frontwomen in any band. Olivo doesn’t so much sing the lyrics as take a shot of tequila and blowtorch them. And for a musical about New York’s downtown bar scene, that’s a very good thing.
There’s only one problem with the music: It’s much better than the story. As Sara and Michael complain about the drudgery of their Upper West Side lives — there are always lunchboxes to pack and socks to clean — it’s easy to find yourself wondering, When will we get to the murder part? Once Sara frees herself from her happy but mundane life by reconnecting with Tom, it’s clear where this cautionary tale is headed. The ending might be a surprise, but what leads up to it isn’t. Yes, when Chekhov’s bat finally comes down, somebody dies. But by that point, the suspense is already dead. B