I wanted to like Murder Ballad, the new alt-rock opera that just opened at Off Broadway's Union Square Theatre following a successful run last fall at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II. I really did. It's got a talented cast led by Will Swenson (Hair) and Rebecca Naomi Jones (American Idiot). It features a strong alt-rock score by Julianna Nash (of the '90s band Talking to Animals) that occasionally sounds like something you might hear on the radio and not just Sirius' Broadway station.
And best of all, the premise of the 80-minute, intermission-less show a love triangle that centers on a downtown bar has been cleverly extended to the staging. Scenic designer Mark Wendland has transformed the Union Square Theatre into a glorified hipster dive, with a working bar running through the orchestra section (that serves drinks to theatergoers pre-show). There are seats raked up what's ordinarily the stage and small café tables in the center, along with a pool table that occasionally doubles as a bed. The four-person cast move among the audience, climbing onto chairs or tables or the bar to belt out Nash's often searing torch-song melodies.
Unfortunately, the woman at the center of Ballad's underwritten love triangle mostly remains a cipher. She's played by Ghost's Caissie Levy, stepping in for Karen Olivo from the MTC production, with some pretty vocals but no discernible chemistry with either of her paramours the hunky, commitment-phobic hipster bartender Tom (Swenson) or the stable, schlubby Upper West Side poetry prof Michael (The Full Monty's John Ellison Conlee).
Poor Sara is also saddled with an anorexic script, by Julia Jordan, that fails to add dimensions to its bare-bones characters. Her lyrics are thin, too, leaning heavily on name-checking for social commentary: Michael wants to send their daughter to Dalton or Trinity, while Sara and Tom imagine themselves in a Truffaut film (''She's Deneuve, he's Belmondo/As long as no one knows''). And a song called ''Mouth Tattoo'' includes such original turns of phrase as ''It hurts so good...and bad'' and ''Maybe this sweetness is just heaven sent.''
As if to cover for the story's rough patches, director Trip Cullman keeps the action moving briskly right up to the explosive finale that the barmaid narrator (a dynamite Jones) teases in her opening number. ''Someone's gonna die,'' she belts with the charisma of a born rock star (and a baseball bat in hand). Despite its many promising elements, though, Murder Ballad doesn't build suspense so much as idle curiosity. B–
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-653-8000)