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The sound of violence: ‘Murder Ballad’ theater review


By Owen Bryant

A murder ballad is a song that takes the traditional form of a ballad and outfits it with lyrical content of crime and violent death. Originating in the premodern Europe, the murder ballad has become its own subgenre of popular music. Examples include Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” or the folk traditional “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” popularized by Lead Belly and Nirvana. 

The song form is an artful paradox, both beautiful and haunting; conventional, yet nonconformist.

This also describes VVE3 Productions’ current theatrical experience named — well — “Murder Ballad.” Written by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan, this one-act alt-rock opera is one that doesn’t quit from start to finish. 

Performed in-the-round in the common area of The Basement, a small ensemble of actors and musicians take their similarly small audience on an intimate and intense ride through the toils of love, lust, jealousy and revenge. Caught in the chaos are some immediately relatable characters who are just trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. As the story unfolds, their decisions have real-life consequences that don’t always turn out for the best.

The story opens on a few guileless 20-somethings living in New York City. Independent and fiery Sara (Cassandra Moore) is involved in a romance with bartender Tom (John Frederick, also the director) that seems to be more physical than anything else. Temptations lead to transgressions, trust is betrayed, hearts are broken. 

Moving on, Sara meets Michael (Jeffrey Bentley) who is the nicest guy ever, and total father material. Skip a few years ahead and we see Michael working long hours, and Sara, a stay-at-home mom re-experiencing the restlessness of her youth. One day she decides to lace up her old red Doc Martens and go pay an old friend a visit. That old friend is Tom. 

The Murder Ballad show poster. Designed by cast member Jeffrey Bentley.

I’ll leave what happens then up to your imagination. The story takes a drastic turn, exposing just how flawed and raw human emotions and motives can be.

A true rock opera, “Murder Ballad” is told entirely through song. The three characters above are joined by a narrator (Cori Lynne Cooper), a vulpine and omniscient presence, and arguably the most compelling figure in the show.  She watches the characters from over their shoulders and guides the audience through the story. 

All leads in their own rights, each of the players brings a tangible passion to their role. They all seem like people we might know, or might even BE. None are perfect, and their imperfection is what makes them so relatable. 

And I must give them some serious kudos—90 minutes of nonstop singing of such intensity was exhausting just to watch, but these performers were near-flawless in their delivery.

There were some limitations to the production, but they didn’t detract too much from the show’s appeal. For example, there were some minor sound issues. All actors were mic’d but the sound quality and volume varied between them at times. 

The band, led by piano marvel Patricia Brewer, was top-notch and positioned out of the way behind the actors. But I wondered how it would have been if they were a little less in the shadows. 

This is a show about blurred lines and, as director Frederick told me, “it’s meant to be performed in a bar.” Having the actors three feet in front of me, performing in a nontraditional space, and no fourth wall to even be broken, incorporating the band into the action on stage would have amped up the tone even more. I do understand the constraints of space and practicality, so this is more of a “what if” musing than a criticism.

What I admire most in any kind of art is originality and sincerity and “Murder Ballad” is packed full of both. In all honesty, the story is fairly unremarkable on its own. But what makes this remarkable is the recipe used to bring it to life: The nontraditional performance space, the rock opera format, and the expert talent each actor and musician brings to the table. And of course, a dash of the macabre added for taste.

“Murder Ballad” is a fervently original theatrical experience that deserves recognition. I’m glad I didn’t miss this one. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 in The Basement, through May 21. For tickets, visit https://vve3productions.ticketspice.com/murder-ballad

“Murder Ballad”
Music and Lyrics by Juliana Nash
Book and lyrics by Julia Jordan
Directed by John Frederick in collaboration with Holly Natwora
VVE3 Productions

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