Robin Heck saunters through the door of North Front Theater, starts the jukebox, and turns to face the audience. It is the opening of “Murder Ballad,” Second Star Theatre Company’s new musical, and it is clear she has a story to tell. It’s also clear she is up to no good. The 2012 musical by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan chronicles the age-old love triangle … or does it? Heck assures it does, but she also makes us wonder if she is trustworthy. Already things are interesting.
Heck is the narrator of “Murder Ballad,” which seems to be about a young dissolute couple, Sara (Kire Stinson) and Tom (Beau Mumford). Tom is the original bad boy, whose greatest aspiration in life is to own his own bar, but if that doesn’t work out, a little bit of sadistic control of the people around him will suit him just fine.
In “I Love NY” we watch these two party kids escape daylight for the dark world of alcoholism and sex. As Mumford slowly reveals the ever-more-violent and controlling side of Tom, Sara begins to shrink away until one day she literally bumps into Michael (Jay Zadeh), an NYU student with a love of literature and a kind heart. He always envisioned himself as a knight in shining armor and now here is a maiden in distress. With “Troubled Mind/Promises,” we get to watch the sweet, kind man act out his fantasy, and a distressed young woman start to develop the idea that love isn’t necessarily painful and terrifying.
They marry, move into a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood and have a beautiful little girl, Frankie. Things are so normal, they’re almost idyllic. Then the housewife discovers she doesn’t know what to do with herself when Frankie starts school. In “Coffee,” we start to see the fraying of the edges. Stinson’s Sara isn’t so happy with family life: having to get up every morning and get a kid ready for school. What happened to her wild nights? To the sense of excitement? To partying? Inevitably, she doesn’t appreciate or value her new life enough and finds herself walking in the door of Tom’s bar. Everyone except Sara seems to know the likelihood of her escaping this situation alive is incredibly slim. She’s playing with fire and part of her craves it.
As the narrator tells us in the beginning, someone is gonna die. The question is: Who?
Director David Heck assembled a great cast and talented team to give life and depth to the script. Since it is a sung-through musical, as in the music doesn’t stop for 10 minutes of dialogue (think “Les Mis”), choreographer Kevin Lee-y Green has the challenge of making the visual component of the story comprehensible.
The shifting power dynamics onstage are really important to understand the plot, and make the unfolding of the human heart and deeper reaches of psychology believable. Music director Billy Heathen (who is the guitarist) has assembled a rockin’ band (Paul Miller on keyboard, Matthew Marino on bass, and Phil Covington on drums); they capture a range of young excitement, from sweeping love ballads to blinding passion.
Actually, the balance between the band and singers is really great because we can still understand the singers who are telling the story, but the band is rockin’ out and putting on a great show, too. So often it feels like audiences get one or the other in a musical, but here both work in concert and it is awesome. Talk about great voices! All four performers can sing and put on a great show!
Watching Zadeh’s Michael brings to mind a young Anthony Lawson back in the heyday of City Stage: a bearded, singing, wonder-mining depth and nuance from witty lyrics. Mumford’s Tom is genuinely scary, to watch his transition from interested young lover to stalking psychopath. I haven’t seen him sing a solo onstage since he played Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Browncoat. His growth as a performer and his confidence onstage are really remarkable. Perhaps what makes his Tom the most terrifying is his relatability. As my date said, “I know all those people—and I don’t what to be around any of them.”
Stinson’s Sara is particularly mind-boggling. Her voice is stunning—absolutely stunning—but she brings very little to the table of the relationship with either of these men. Michael wants to protect her, and Tom wants to control her. Outside of that, she’s not appealing as a person—a habitual drunk who is selfish and self-destructive.
“I wouldn’t even want to take an elevator ride with her,” my date commented. I have to agree.
To her credit, Stinson commits to all of Sara’s motivation, but doesn’t try to make her a hero or even someone worthy of the redemption Michael offers her time and time again. If she did, the climax of the show wouldn’t work.
Watching both Mumford and Zadeh descend into two poles of madness over a woman is interesting. The obsessive nature of this kind of situation is really scary. I kept thinking about how well they dramatize the process of spiraling from a perfectly calm, normal person—who goes to work and takes care of the kids—to someone prepared to kill another person. Everyone on stage goes through the transformation on some level. When the climax comes, it is a genuine toss-up which one is going to be the victim.
“Murder Ballad” hits on all cylinders. Director David Heck should be very pleased with the show and what he and his team have brought to the stage. The cast really sell it without spoiling the climax. I would go see it again just to listen to them sing the score.