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Dangerous Love: 'Murder Ballad' Takes Center Stage at ABET

Murder Ballad, staged by ABET - All Beaches Experimental Theatre, delves into the tangled web of a love triangle between Sara, her husband Michael, and her old flame, Tom. Sara’s journey from reckless youth to the security of married life, and then back to the excitement of rekindled romance, leads to the unraveling of personal boundaries and morals. As the story unfolds, Tom’s relentless pursuit of Sara, coupled with her confusion of love and obsession, leads them into a dangerous dance filled with passion, betrayal, and ultimately, murder. The musical’s rock ballad-driven score amplifies the tension and brings to life the underlying emotions of the characters. Through powerful lyrics and emotive performances, the audience is transported into the heart of New York City’s gritty nightlife, where love is a gamble and no one escapes unscathed.

Conceived and written by Julia Jordan, who also wrote the book, and with music penned by Juliana Nash, Murder Ballad crafts a theatrical experience that resonates with audiences and leaves them on the edge of their seats. The seamless fusion of contemporary themes and timeless emotions, enhanced by Jordan’s compelling storytelling and Nash’s evocative musical score, forms an unforgettable saga.

The set design adeptly portrays two strikingly different settings simultaneously in the compact, yet pleasant, space of the Grace Darling Studio Theatre. Tom’s bar, King’s Club, begins on the house left, with a full wall of liquor bottles and glassware and a row of barstools. A handsome pool table sits prominently in the middle of the stage. As the eye travels across the stange, several empty frames hang on back wall above the band giving it a very late 90s/early 00s vibe. When we get to the house right, a comfortable looking couch and a small table completes the scene.

By skillfully directing the actors’ movements from the house left of the stage, where King’s Club emanates the ambiance of nightlife, to the right, where Sara and Michael’s apartment exudes comfort, and further extending to the playground at Central Park, the production artfully and seamlessly navigates the transitions between the scenes without changing set dressing. The pool table in the middle is cleverly repurposed as a bed for apartment scenes.

Erin Barnes’s Narrator serves as a guiding presence, weaving the audience through the story’s complex emotions and events. This character’s insights into love, betrayal, and tragedy add intensity and suspense to the production. Barnes’s performance is marked by her incredible vocal prowess and commanding stage presence, both of which are undeniable strengths. Her pitch-perfect voice resonates with authority and emotion. Yet, Barne’s operatic vocal embouchure and pronunciation feel notably jarring and out of place in a rock musical. While the power of her voice is evident, this stylistic choice does create some dissonance with the genre, slightly undermining what could have been an otherwise flawless performance. Nevertheless, the power and excellence of her voice elevate her performance, making these concerns secondary.

In the role of Tom, Chris Berry begins as a seemingly one-dimensional eye candy and boy toy to Sara, but as the story unfolds, he transforms into a tormented, menacing and terrifying figure. Tom’s love for Sara drives him to jealousy and obsession, especially after she leaves him for a more stable life with Michael. Berry’s portrayal of Tom’s frustration, anger and menace is very well-executed. As the story unfolds, Tom’s raw emotions and determination to win Sara back lead to a series of events that fuel the tension and drama of the narrative.

Julia Blasi and Chris Robertson give standout performances in their respective roles as Sara and Michael. As Sara, Blasi expertly threads the incredibly difficult needle of portraying a convincingly drunk character without descending into caricature. As Murder Ballad unfolds, Blasi’s portrayal of Sara becomes a poignant expression of a character torn between past and present. Her performance vividly conveys Sara’s struggle with feeling reduced to the role of ‘just a mother,’ yearning for her days of reckless youth. Blasi’s nuanced acting captures this inner conflict, delivering a heartfelt and compelling depiction of a complex woman. Her nuanced interpretation brings depth and authenticity to Sara’s struggles and relationships.

Alongside Blasi, Robertson’s portrayal of Michael radiates sincerity and warmth. His seemingly genuine and loving connection with Sara is underlined by an engaging on-stage chemistry. Robertson expertly weaves into his performance a nuanced portrayal of intellectual elitism, condescension and judgment—attributes his character is entirely unaware of—enhancing the complexity of his interactions with Sara. Despite his genuine love and affection, Michael’s lack of self-awareness deepens the complexity of their relationship. This dynamic insightfully captures the intricacies of love, misunderstanding, and human imperfection, and Robertson’s skilled performance was captivating to witness, skillfully conveying these complex themes in a way that both engages and challenges the audience.

The climax, laden with suspense, brings the destructive love affair to a head, culminating in an unexpected and shocking resolution. It’s a cautionary tale that weaves contemporary themes with timeless human emotions, creating a visceral experience that resonates with modern audiences.

Erin Barnes wears many hats in Murder Ballad, portraying the Narrator while also leading the band as the musical director and keyboardist. The band’s performance is noteworthy, featuring a musical score with a dynamic blend of rock ballads and pop songs underscored by forceful piano and electric guitar leads. The bassist, Mamie Lue Catalina, stands out with her exceptionally mesmerizing performance. Regrettably, the blend of canned music with live performance creates a disappointing effect, evoking an unwelcome comparison to Muzak. The guitar is frustratingly muted, and the vocal mix only muddles the issue further. The overall energy of the band feels restrained, with only the keyboards clearly resonating in the audience. Staging a rock musical in a studio theater presents challenges, and while critiquing from a distance is effortless, the decision not to mic the actors—thus hindering the band from playing at full volume—seems a missed opportunity that takes away from what could have been a more immersive auditory experience.

Overall, Murder Ballad leaves a strong impression with its gripping storytelling and passionate musical execution. Despite some audio challenges, the musicians and vocalists provide a compelling performance that enhances the drama of the love triangle at the story’s core. Arriving early to secure a seat near the front will enhance your experience, allowing you to best appreciate the intricate details of both the band’s music and the vocalists’ performances. From the nuanced portrayals of complex characters to the vibrant musical score, ABET’s Murder Ballad offers a theatre experience that is memorable and engaging. Don’t miss a chance to witness this thrilling dance of love, betrayal, and murder – it’s a killer show.

Murder Ballad runs August 11 through August 27 in the Grace Darling Studio Theatre at Players by the Sea.

For more information, full cast and crew credits, and links to tickets, visit the Murder Ballad page here on JaxPlays.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Jonathan Larson was involved in the conception of Murder Ballad. Julia Jordan, who created Murder Ballad, is a Jonathan Larson Award winner. The article has been updated to reflect the correct information. We regret the error.