Murder Ballad, Arts Theatre ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

The murder ballad – a narrative song recounting the events leading up to and including a death, whether factual or imagined – has been around since the 18th century and persisted in some form or another, including Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’, which of course spawned its own full-length musical. Now, New York-based alt-rock singer-songwriter Juliana Nash has joined forces with musical theatre writer Julia Jordan to create Murder Ballad, a one-act sung-through musical which extends the form into an hour long narrative.

Like the Manilow song, one of the principals in Jordan and Nash’s story is a bartender – Tom, a New York-based lothario played by Ramin Karimloo. And, as in ‘Copacabana’, there is not only a whodunnit aspect to the story, but also a mystery about which of the three principals will turn out to be the victim.

Narrating the whole enterprise is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, setting the scene as Karimloo’s Tony embarks upon, and then ends, a tempestuous relationship with Kerry Ellis’ Sara. After she finds solace in the arms of gentle poet Michael (Norman Bowman), Sara settles into a life of domesticity, getting married and having a young daughter. But the allure of Tom is never far away, and the resumption of their affair sets events on to their fatal path.

In the compressed timeline, and with no spoken dialogue to explore each character’s psyche, we are left with a succession of rock songs to provide the emotional heavy lifting. And while the sung-through score leaves little space for the audience to breathe, Nash’s music provides a variety of pace that allows characterisation to come out. It helps, of course, that the three key players are all drawn with broad strokes – this is not a genre that appreciates nuance.

Amid the tumult of the central triangle, Hamilton-Barritt’s cynical eye brings fizz to each scene, especially when standing in as a proxy for Sara and Michael’s daughter Frankie, lugubriously sipping coffee and puffing on a cigarette while being addressed as a five-year-old. Richard Kent’s set design, which incorporates a subtly used revolve and some impressively choreographed projections on a series of semi-translucent panels, gives a stylish aesthetic that lifts what could otherwise be a mundane story.

Jordan and Nash’s lyrics occasionally slip into cliché, and are overly fond of playing card references (we are introduced to the concept of the trio and the murder weapon with the lines ‘A king, a queen, a club [a baseball bat] and a knave/One of them is destined for the grave’). But most especially, it keeps the mystery of who clubbed who alive for as long as possible, culminating in a sequence of each character imagining resolving their situation with violence. The clues are there, though, meaning that the whodunnit and why is solvable by crime writing fans well before the fatal blow lands.

With an accomplished four-piece band led by musical director Sean Green, Murder Ballad provides an enjoyable, if short, musical treat that should appeal to audience of the Arts’ previous musical success, American Idiot, as much as it does to aficionados of contemporary New York musical writing, of rock musicals, of Ramin Karimloo’s frequent shirtlessness, or all of the above.

Murder Ballad continues at the Arts Theatre until December 8.

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