The new rock opera “Murder Ballad,” which has just opened its run at Actor’s Express, certainly begins with a bang. One of the characters has just been murdered—and the audience doesn’t know who it is or who’s the killer. Those secrets are revealed over the course of the evening, according to Freddie Ashley, the company’s artistic director, who is directing the production.
At its heart is a love triangle that goes wrong. Narrated by Jessica De Maria, “Murder Ballad” stars Kristen Alyson Browne as Sara, an Upper West Sider who has been seeing Tom (Jeremy Harrison), a bartender. They are both would-be artists—she a rock star, he an actor—but their relationship runs its course fairly quickly. Later Sara meets Michael (Kevin Harry), who has a PhD and is very settled. They get married, but one afternoon Sara sees Tom by chance and they begin a brief affair. Afterwards, according to Ashley, “the shit hits the fan.”
“Murder Ballad” opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2012 and was a New York Times critic’s pick. It was conceived by Julia Jordan, responsible for the book and lyrics, and Juliana Nash, handling music and lyrics. Will Swenson, seen recently in the Alliance Theatre’s “Bull Durham,” played Tom in the original production.
Although he has not seen the show (he tried to during a New York visit, but it was sold out) Ashley has become almost obsessed with the score and the way it is told.
“I fell in love with the music,” he says. “This is one of the most original musicals I’ve come across in a long time. It’s anything but a traditional piece of theater. It really caught my eye. It’s very sexy and smart. It’s clear and engaging and suspenseful. I thought it was something our audience would really dig.”
The story is told entirely through song, with no spoken dialogue, and contains its share of plot twists, says Ashley. It’s also staged in a unique manner.
“The way it was done initially in New York and around the country, it’s an immersive show for the audience,” he says. “We have taken out the traditional seating for the theater, re-configured some of it and it happens all over the room. So there are times when actors are literally standing next to an audience member or sitting at the same table.”
The company has a long history with rock operas, such as the award-winning “Spring Awakening” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” They have proven to be audience favorites.
“Our audience always craves high-octane experiences and they want to be moved in very substantial ways,” Ashley says. “With a rock musical you have a lot of capacity for that. I love rock musicals—musicals in general—because there is so much potential for an elevated emotional experience.” The director also says one of the current trends in theater is to use rock and popular music to tell a story, which “Murder Ballad” certainly does.
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Through Dec. 7