The edgy sung through rock opera is not a novel conceit. Neither is a murderous love triangle. Audiences have seen both done many times before; however the critically acclaimed Murder Ballad has definitely caught the verve of the New York City theater scene. It opened at Manhattan Theatre Club's The Studio at Stage II and has recently transferred Off-Broadway to The Union Square Theatre. The viscerally gritty musical was conceived by Julia Jordan, a Jonathan Larson Award winner and two-time Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist, with a book and lyrics by Jordan and music and lyrics by indie rock singer/songwriter Julian Nash of the band Taking to Animals.
Just like the show does in New York City, the album opens with a haunting solo by the narrator, vocalized by Rebecca Naomi Jones (American Idiot and Passing Strange). The creepily tender chords, sinister lyrics, and accumulated music references draw the audience in to the intriguing narrative. Throughout the remainder of the show and album, Jones' earthy and sultry voice radiates and hypnotizes on tracks such as "The Crying Scene," "Clubs and Diamonds," and each of the various "Narrator" numbers.
Karen Olivo (In The Heights and the 2009 Broadway Revival of West Side Story) sings Sara, the Upper West Sider with a dangerously Downtown past. She drips sex appeal throughout the album. Whether upbeat and charismatic on numbers like "I Love NY," soberly sweet on songs like "Coffee's On," stunningly fearful on numbers like "Built for Longing," angry and embittered on songs like "Answer Me," or passionate on numbers like "You Belong to Me" Olivo showcases striking talent and star power. Hopefully, her retirement from theater will be a brief one.
Powerfully masculine and utterly captivating Tom is wonderfully sung by Will Swenson (Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and 2009 Broadway Revival of HAIR). This charismatic bartender is Sara's combustive and animalistic lover, and the man her mind lingers on. Swenson's rough around the edges and charming rock voice has never sounded better than it does on this album. He delivers outstanding performances on tracks such as "Sara," "Mouth Tattoo," "My Name," and "You Belong to Me."
Michael, sung by John Ellison Conlee (The Full Monty), is the grounded, sweet, "Mr. Ph.D. in Poetry" husband to Sara. A good number of his songs in the score are folksier, sometimes with hints of Appalachia. Conlee's vocals are more plaintive and subdued, sobering the rollicking score with standout tracks like "Troubled Mind/Promises," "Sugar Cubes and Rock Salt," and "Little By Little Reprise."
The capable, small, and abundantly talented band is conducted by Justin Levine and Cody Owen Stine and composed of Levine on keyboard and guitar, Thomas Juiliano on guitars and mandolin, Julia Adamy on Bass, and Kevin Garcia on drums.
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Michael Crotier produced the striking and stirring World Premiere Cast Recording of Murder Ballad, which was Mixed by Douglas Derryberry and Mastered by Michael Fossenkemper at Yellow Sound Lab, New York City. Their work excellently captures the pulsating backbeats and blunt, sticky, and hot indie inspired rock ballads and anthems that the score is comprised of.
Yellow Sound Label's World Premiere Cast Recording of Murder Ballad is now available for purchase from iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere music is sold.