Murder Ballad

Conceived by and with Book and Lyrics by Julia JordanMURDER-BALLAD-Sidebar-Title

Music and Lyrics by Juliana Nash

Directed and Choreographed by James Beaudry

Music Direction by Nicholas Davio

At the Flat Iron Building, Chicago

Contemporary rock opera is a murder mystery or is it?

The concept here is intriguing. The set is a dive bar in NYC complete with a wet bar, pool table round tables with swivel chairs. You can buy drinks before the show at the  bar. Nice touch. The 80 minute rock opera (yes, it is sung through with no dialogue) starts with the band doing a hip version of the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley”- a folk tune about a murder.

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Then we hear the story of Sara (Amanda Horvath) as she hooks up with bartender Tom (Chris Logan) but ends up with the poet Michael (Matt W. Miles). After having a child together, Sara becomes bored with mundane married life. She strays back to the dive bar and approaches Tom again to have a fling. Michael eventually catches one and he decides to take action against Sara and Tom. I’ll say little more so as not to spoil the opera for those who enjoy rock opera with a hip band.

The other reason I’ll not reveal the conclusion is because I’m not sure what happened as two unearned surprises happened along the 80 minutes of rock singing. These problems started with that Broadway pop/rock style singing to the monotonous rock beats that, at times of high emotion, required the singers to scream, even in duets!  There is a basic problem with telling a story through rock music and singing: the singers tend to slur their words making much of the lyrics unintelligible. Thus, we have trouble understanding what is going on and/or why things are happening.

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In this rock opera, the Narrator (Camille Robinson) demonstrates her strong vocal range but she fails to enunciate her lyrics making it impossible for me to understand what she is singing. That ‘s troubling for a narrator. I also found Amanda Horvath’s sometimes mumble singing diluting her meanings. I believe its the rock style singing that makes delivering  word’s meanings difficult. However, Matt Miles and Chris Logan seemed to navigate the tough-to-sing lyrics effectively most of the time. By other problem is with the screaming that was used too often to emulate emotions. One, two or all four singers screaming together was ear-shattering. This love triangle has a couple of strange twists that came out of nowhere. Why the narrator suddenly became a part of the story still baffles me?

I really wanted to like this work since I  enjoy and respect most of the productions from Bailiwick Chicago Theater. But my dislike of pop/rock singing sure got into my way here. This rock-infused work will probably be best suited for younger theatre patrons who have an ‘ear’ for rock lyrics and music. I don’t. This work is ambitious and nicely staged with truthful performances by Amanda Horvath and Chris Logan. I guess, I’m too much of a musical traditionalist to ‘get’ Murder Ballad. You may want to experience this show if you’re open to rock.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: April 9, 2015

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Murder Ballad page at theatreinchicago.com

At the Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL,  call 773-969-6201, www.bailiwaikchicago.com, tickets $30, onstage seating $40, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 5:30 7 9 pm, running time is 8o minutes without an intermission, through May 9, 2015