By ROBERT FELDBERG
New off-Broadway musical, at the Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St.
Book and lyrics by Julia Jordan. Music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. Directed by Trip Cullman.
With John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Caissie Levy and Will Swenson.
Schedule: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday; 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $80 and $90. 800-982-2787, or ticketmaster.com
The Playbill cover for "Murder Ballad" has a sexy-looking man and woman sharing an open-mouthed kiss. It's a predictive illustration of the hot times ahead.
The musical, which opened Wednesday night at a reconfigured Union Square Theatre, is an almost entirely sung tale of a doomed love triangle -- a clever, passion-drenched 21st-century re-telling of "Frankie and Johnny," only this time with one woman and two men. (Perhaps as an homage, there's an offstage little girl named Frankie.)
The theater has eliminated its traditional proscenium stage in favor of a theater-in-the-rectangle, with a rock band at one end and the audience surrounding the three other sides.
The setting is a gritty barroom. (The story takes place in New York, although everything about it silently screams: rural, small- town U.S.A.)
The scenery is a very long bar and a pool table, both of them used by the characters for horizontal activities not intended by the manufacturers. (To be clear, the action is steamy in a PG-13 way. There's nothing explicit, and the actors keep their clothes on.)
Sara (Caissie Levy), an eyeful with long, curly blond hair, has a tempestuous affair with Tom (Will Swenson), a stud East Village bartender. They break up and, on the rebound, she meets Michael (John Ellison Conlee), who's sweet, sober and loving.
Sara and Michael marry, and have a child. As happens, their lives veer from fervent love-making to the question of whether they can afford private-school tuition.
In search of a spark, Sara secretly resumes her relationship with Tom. No good, of course, can come of that, especially after Michael figures out what's going on. The outcome is predictable -- but with a twist.
This is all related through a succession of driving rock songs, whose glory is their whip-smart lyrics, a collaboration of Julia Jordan (who also conceived the show and wrote the book) and Juliana Nash (who composed the music).
Many of the best lines go to the saucy narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who provides welcome oases of humor while keeping the story moving. (Her concise summing-up of Sara and Michael's new married life: "Two bedroom, open floor plan; up on the West Side, with a doorman.")
The show was originally presented last year in a very small space, with the audience sharing the barroom with the characters.
An attempt has been made to replicate that closeness at the much larger Union Square - in addition to theater seats, some patrons sit around the perimeter of the stage at small cabaret tables.
But director Trip Cullman has problems cultivating intimacy in the sizable open space. He must circulate his four actors around the playing area, while having them mingle with the audience and also offer everyone a clear view.
Rapport between actors and audience isn't lost, but it is diminished.
The material and the performances are strong enough, though, to make the offbeat "Murder Ballad" a diverting and enjoyable 90 minutes of theater.
(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.
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