By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 1 hours and 10 minutes with no intermission
Art can happen anywhere at any time and StillPointe Theatre has proven that with their latest offering, Murder Ballad with Book & Lyrics by Julia Jordan and Music & Lyrics by Juliana Nash. Directed by Corey Hennessy and Co-Directed by Amanda J. Rife with Music Direction by Nick Jewett, Murder Ballad is a voyeuristic peek into a juicy, dark love triangle in an edgy setting of which one would be hard pressed to look away!
First, the setting of this production is like none I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and it was a joyous experience. The action takes place in the upstairs bar of The Ottobar and it couldn’t be a better setting. The performance has a very casual, fringe feeling too it and could be considered performance art, but whatever you consider it, the setting sets an appropriate mood. Researching the piece, I discovered that it was, in fact, written for just this type of setting but The Ottobar, a Baltimore institution for live, local music, was familiar and comfortable, putting me instantly at ease for this completely immersive production. The booming bass from the live bands playing downstairs added to the realism of just sitting in a crowded bar watching the drama unfold between three poor souls in the city and I was set in the mood of curious excitement.
The setting being what it is, there’s not much in the way of set, lights, and sound but, it absolutely worked for this production. There was some special lighting and a few props but the Production/Design team of Ryan Haase, Corey Hennessey, Zoe Kanter, and Danielle Robinette didn’t seem to have much to do but their choice of the upstairs bar at The Ottobar is brilliant. The bar itself compliments the performance and, though this piece might work on a traditional stage, I wouldn’t have wanted to experience it any other way. Since the upstairs bar at The Ottobar isn’t huge, the actors were able to use just about every inch of the space without much trouble. The band was set off in one of the corners and they aren’t hidden, but exposed in all their glory and were apart of the setting and a welcome addition.
To mention sound, the balance between the actors and the band could use a little more work as the actors microphones were set very low. When the Murder Ballad band started it was challenging to hear what the actors were singing but when the local bands downstairs started, it was almost impossible, but the blocking of the piece helped a little, putting the actors closer to the audience members throughout.
Murder Ballad is a sung-through piece and it’s worth mentioning the score by Juliana Nash is exhilarating with a modern rock feel that had me tapping my foot throughout the performance. Reminiscent of the music of the guitar heavy 90s, I thoroughly enjoyed this well-befitting score.
Speaking of the music, I have to mention the terrific band for Murder Ballad consisting of Nick Jewett on Guitar, who also put on the hat of Music Director, Cody Raum on Bass, Trevor Shipley on Keys, and Joe Pipkin on Drums. These guys were on point and on key through the entire performance and the use of electric drums was wise as it kept everything very well balanced. Kudos to these talented players!
Co-directors Corey Hennessey and Amanda J. Rife do a fantastic job of transferring this piece to this unique setting, not disrupting the original set up of the bar. They keep their actors moving around, keeping the action interesting and purposeful. There is a slow-motion fight scene during a pivotal point in the piece but since the space is so intimate, it seems a bit trite and doesn’t work as well as it would on a more traditional stage. Regardless, Hennessey and Rife use their space cleverly and give us an entertaining and meaningful show.
Cleverly, the actors performances begin well before actual show time. They actually begin the moment the first patron walks through the door and it’s fun to watch these four characters interact as I settled into my seat and waited for the actual show to start. The gender-blind casting worked wonderfully with this piece and did not hinder the story at all, but complimented the story. The actors didn’t put a masculine or feminine spin on their characters but simply played them as human beings.
Aside from co-directing, Corey Hennessey tackles the role of the Narrator (a part originally played by a female) with a strong presence and just enough creepiness to make one shudder when he is near. This character is very similar to the omnipotent Master of Ceremonies (MC) character in Cabaret – a more traditional musical – as he is ever-present and lurks in the shadows, just watching. Hennessey starts out strong with a strong voice and sets the mood for the entire piece with an edginess that is very appropriate for this character. However, as the show progresses, his performance falls a little flat as the only feeling I get from him is “I’m-irritated-and-I-don’t-care-about-these-idiots”. The only emotion he seems to emote is that of disdain. Rolling eyes and grimaces can only take this character so far, but if he isn’t interested and irritated with these characters, why should I worry about them? Vocally, his performance is good, but he does have some issues with the notes in the higher register. Overall, with few issues, he gives a strong and confident performance.
Moira Horowitz takes on the role of Michael, the stand-up, feet-on-the-ground provider who falls for the wild city girl. Horowitz does a fine job portraying this character and seems to understand the inner pain of this character. Thankfully, Horowitz does not try to play this character as a man, but simply as a person struggling to understand his partner and the relationship in which he is involved. Vocally, she is delicate when needed and strong when needed and holds her own very well.
Taking on the role of Tom, the downtown bad boy, is Amber Wood who gives the part a realistic feel as she navigates through the desperation and wanting of this character who let “the one” slip through his fingers only to find her again, years later. Wood has the appropriate look and is quite comfortable in this role and has a good command of the “stage.” She, too, does not try to play this part as a man, but simply as non-gender specific person in the middle of a love triangle and she plays it with ease. She easily finds her way through the score with rock-style vocals and gives a very enjoyable performance.
The highlight in this production is Sarah Heiderman as Sara, the bad-downtown-girl turned good-uptown-mother. Her performance is nearly flawless and confident as she has a very strong command of the the stage. She has a big voice and is comfortable with the score giving a idyllic performance. Her character’s transition is seamless and her inner conflict is expressed beautifully in her gestures and facial expressions. She really understands her character and, what’s more, her characters change and portrays it beautifully. She is a joy to watch and I look forward to seeing her future work.
Final thought… Murder Ballad is a strong, modern piece about love in the big city as well as finding and losing “the one.” It’s a meaningful piece with a well thought-out, relatable story and a fantastic rock score. The setting and immersion is worth the price of admission and the experience is riveting! If you don’t mind that the fourth wall is broken and if you’re into fringe-type theatre, this is the show for you! Go check it out! It’s an experience not to be missed!
This is what I thought of this production of Murder Ballad.… what do you think?
Murder Ballad will play through September 17 at StillPointe Theatre @ The Ottobar (upstairs), 2549 N Howard Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or purchase them online.