The torrid temps may have cooled off in New York, but the rock musical Murder Ballad is heating things up Off Broadway. The steamy tuner about infidelity and its consequences debuted last fall at Manhattan Theatre Club's smallest stage. Now at the Union Square Theatre, which has been transformed with seating on three sides of the stage, Murder Ballad hasn't lost any of its sizzle.
The setting is a downtown bar, and sure enough there's a big bar at one end of the stage that serves drinks before the show. Some audience members sit at tables on stage, and the four cast members sing and dance around them – and often on the bar, on the pool table and on patrons' tables. It sounds gimmicky, but it works in Trip Cullman's high-energy staging.
Tom (Will Swenson) is a handsome bartender who clearly has fun playing the field. He has a fling with Sara (Caissie Levy) but ends the relationship before it can get serious. Sara rebounds with Michael (John Ellison Conlee), a professor who is ready to settle down. They have a child and build a happy life, but when Tom and Sara meet again, sparks fly. Narrating the action (through song, since there is no spoken dialogue in the 80-minute musical) is Rebecca Naomi Jones. The narrator, it turns out, is Tom's girlfriend. You might call it a love rectangle.
There isn't a lot of story (Julia Jordan conceived the show and wrote the book and lyrics), but the hard-driving rock score by Juliana Nash (also the co-lyricist) and the cast's vocal pyrotechnics make up for that. Swenson exudes charisma as he sings sensuously with his deep, rich baritone. The show's catchiest tune is "Sara," and Swenson does a lovely rendition of it. Conlee lacks Swenson's sex appeal but sings just as beautifully. Jones, a standout in American Idiot, has a distinctive voice that is perfectly suited to Nash's fiery music. Levy (Ghost the Musical and Hair) replaces Karen Olivo, who originated the role of Sara at MTC, and manages to flirt, climb on tables and belt her solos with aplomb.
Murder Ballad is not only the best rock musical since American Idiot, it's also the sexiest show in town. I hope it's a hit because the downtown Off Broadway scene badly needs an adult-friendly alternative to long-running family fare like Stomp and Blue Man Group.