‘Murder Ballad’ at The Studio Theatre (Review) by David Siegel

Let yourself be seduced into a dark reverie as a love triangle, or perhaps a rectangle, goes way wrong. Musical pulp-fiction has come to 14th and P Streets pushed forward by electric guitar power chords, pitchers of beer, and high-energy, breathless youthful passion.

Anastacia McCleskey (Narrator), Christine Dwyer (Sara), Tommar Wilson (Michael), and Cole Burden (Tom). Photo by Vithaya Phongsavan.
Anastacia McCleskey (Narrator), Christine Dwyer (Sara), Tommar Wilson (Michael), and Cole Burden (Tom). Photo by Vithaya Phongsavan.

We are in a short-term pop-up bar called Murder Ballad. It is a detailed, well fit-out venue that I would call “seedy and shit-kicking” if still in my own younger, more transgressive days. It is just a walk-up of four stories of concrete steps off an alley. Plenty of posters on the stairwells of the likes of Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, and Debbie Harry along with PBR and Miller’s signage to get us away from the clean-cut street life of the now well-scrubbed 14th Street. 

Murder Ballad. The title sent shivers through me. I could taste it.  I wanted it. I needed it. I inhaled it; chewing the savory flavor once it was in my mouth. Gawd! Such a laid-back happy smile must have appeared on my face after I walked through the beaded curtain to find a place to sit, just as I used to do, sitting in the back, observing and taking in the smoke, beer, drugs and rock-and-roll.It was Heaven.

First off. Huge thanks to Studio’s Artistic Director David Muse’s vision to honor the once way more sleazy days of 14th Street or for those with personal connections to the rougher, more squalid days of New York City’s Soho off the Lafayette and Spring Street subway stop, whether in the 1970’s or the 1990’s as the show’s setting. Murder Ballad was conceived by, with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan who wrote the book for the musical Sarah, Plain and Tall. She is also a Jonathan Larson Award recipient among many awards. The music and lyrics were written by indie rock singer/songwriter Juliana Nash. She was rhythm guitarist for the band Talking to the Animals.

How to describe Murder Ballad? It is a sung-through rock musical propelled forward by the heat of looking for love and sexual passion, the boredom of a stable married life with child, and the need to rekindle personal fires. Ultimately comes a long black veil of murder.

No, I didn’t give much away for this story line is told in the opening musical number as a Narrator sings, “Listen, and I’ll tell a tale, A tale where good does not prevail/A king, a queen, a club, a knave/One is destined for the grave.” My interest came and remained to the end of this murderous musical road trip.

Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Cole Burden (Tom). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Cole Burden (Tom). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

With terrific voices that sweeten the dark edges of Murder Ballad, the four cast members throw themselves into the performance just inches from the audience. The cast includes Christine Dwyer as Sara, a woman with downtown roots and uptown desires; Cole Burden as Tom, the hunk who lights many a fire in the women around him; Tommar Wilson as Michael, the solid, “good-guy” up-town savior and Anastacia McCleskey as the Narrator. Or is McClesky more than that?

Murder Ballad is no gaggle of unconnected rock songs and pop ballads.There is a true glue of a narrative to keep us interested, driven by a four-piece band of keyboard, drums, guitar, and bass under the musical direction of Darren R. Cohen. Orchestrations and vocal arrangements are by Justine Levine.

One brilliant song title gives off a great sense of the evening’s journey; “Mouth Tatoo.” There are also song titles such as “Promises,” “Troubled Mind,” and “You Belong to Me” to name a few others. There is a downtown-infused song entitled “I Love New York that an uptown Frank or Liza would never sing nor would Woody Allen ever salivate over and want to use for a film.

Some lyrics have lovely brooding bite:  a “kiss like a mouth tattoo, burns in me,” the phrase “branded by love, etched on my skin,” a fervent, defiantly delivered line you “can’t erase me,” along with a plaintive “Please hear me,” to mention a few.

 Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Tommar Wilson (Michael). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Christine Dwyer (Sara) and Tommar Wilson (Michael). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Yet, there were times when the lyrics had a too deliberate attempt to be “smart” with cultural references that sounded odd and more connected to the 1960s-1970s rather than the 1990s. References to the movie Jules and Jim, actors Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo, pushed me a bit out of the bar atmosphere I was sitting at. A reference to Bobby Darin’s pop finger-snapping version of Mack the Knife, really over a Pabst Blue Ribbon? And a way too close reference in one spot to that famous cover art for the LP album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan pricked up my ears.

One other note to consider for yourself; as I wondered at times, if rougher, somewhat more husky, bluesy voices would add a life-lived depth to the show’s affect. 

A long standing ovation goes to Murder Ballad’s Production Designer Brian MacDevitt who has close to 70 Broadway shows to his credit. He should take a long well-lit bow for what he envisioned. Applause as well to Costume Designer Laree Lentz, Sound Designer Laree Lentz, Set Director Andrew Cohen, and Lighting Director Andrew Cissna, who as a team built a special bar from four walls and nothing much else but their artistic imagination and skills. And to the real-life bar keeps and Murder Ballad server staff who keep things moving before the show, well, a “thank you too!”

Let me add kudos to Movement Director Nancy Bannon  Whenever the narrative or lyrics left me looking about for a second of dis-interest, there were a flurry of actor movement and interactions that left me agog and happy. The actors were fleet dancers whether they were simulating making love with kisses, sizing each other up from a far, fighting, or just milling about out of the central action.

Murder Ballad is a great respite from everyday life. It is full of its share of scorching music, biting lyrics, and passionate acting to feed an audience a heated tale of infidelity and murder. Inhale this unexpected short-time pleasure while you can. Do you have an excuse or alibi for letting the cold winds of murder moan so delightfully and safely but pass you by?  Nope, you don’t. Put down your phone, and go take in Murder Ballad.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.


Murder Ballad plays through May 17, 2015 at The Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Magic Time! ‘Murder Ballad’ at The Studio Theatre by John Stoltenberg.

Spine: ‘Murder Ballad: Liquor and Love, with Child’ by Robert Michael Oliver.


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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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