Murder Ballad at TUTS Underground Lights up the Stage

The setup:

Murder Ballad began in an intimate venue in Manhattan and then moved to a much larger venue, but in both offered an "immersive" experience, as the audience is made in some ways part of the action on stage. TUTs Underground has achieved this in the 500-seat Zilkha hall by inviting the audience on stage, prior to the play beginning, installing a working bar in front at audience level, and by seating ten patrons scattered on three tables on the stage itself. All this adds considerable interest, and works beautifully. The execution:

This is a sung-through rock musical, fueled by Mediterranean passions, and the desire of one woman, Sara, to have it all, both uptown and downtown, both husband/family and hot lover. She is played by Lauren Molina, who delivers a knockout performance. She is blond, fit, and beautiful, what young men call a "hardbody" - this is a compliment, describing a confident, self-assertive woman who knows what she wants, and usually gets it. Most definitely, a dude-magnet.

Sara herself is passionately in love with bartender Tom (Steel Burkhardt), dark hair, handsome, fit, and their simulated lovemaking heats up the stage, the barstools and the bar itself; those in the front row may find their glasses steaming up. But Tom is loath to commit, perhaps because bartenders have special "opportunities" rarely available to accountants.

Frustrated, Sara accosts a stranger who accidently bumps into her, whom we know to be respectable because he has grey hair and wears glasses. This is Michael, played by Pat McRoberts, who also is attractive. He provides the safe harbor which Sara thinks she needs, and Sara moves in. Uptown wins. Or does it?

Hot sex, once experienced, etches itself into the psyche, and though Sara now has a daughter and a life of comfort, she returns to the bar to take on Tom as her lover, and the barstools again fear for their lives.

The fourth character is The Narrator (Kristin Warren), another hardbody dude-magnet. Kristin is dark-haired, not blonde, but she lights up the stage with electricity. She drinks a lot, but holds it well, and stays clear of involvement until near the ending, when, caving in finally to Tom's dark appeal, she makes a pass at him.

The electricity is key here, as all four have it, though Michael's has a somewhat lower wattage. The characters move about the stage with grace, dueling for position and power. The action is almost modern ballet, and is engrossing. The music, from the excellent five-piece band also on stage, is the now-expected driving force, heavy on drums, often riding over and drowning out the spoken lyrics, but this doesn't matter. What you see is what you get, and it's dynamic and involving.

The moment I liked best was the ironic counterpoint between Michael singing of his deep love for Sara on the stage itself while Sara and Tom grapple in sex on the bar below. The lyrics here, while admirable, owe much to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetic query: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." This is the only moment of sensitivity, but this is not a complaint, other works can have sensitivity, here we have something more important to deal with - murder itself.

As the affair is exposed, it becomes clear that the operatic momentum has built to the point that anyone of the three is capable of killing either of the other two. They meet in the bar, and in the darkness of a blackout, a shot rings out, leaving us to wonder who killed whom?

I wish it had ended there, an enigma wrapped in ambiguity, but it doesn't. There is a brief epilogue, so you learn who the survivors are, but you won't hear them from me.

The work was conceived by Julia Jordan, who provided the book and some of the lyrics, and the music and some lyrics are by Juliana Nash. There is an unfortunate side-effect of having a working bar onstage before the play begins, as five separate patrons with small bladders had to leave and return to their seats during the performance, making ten distractions, and probably there were more behind me I didn't see.

Murder Ballad is directed by TUTS Underground's Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin, and choreographed by Michelle Gaudette, both brilliantly. The stunningly handsome, multilevel set - even a spiral staircase, used well - is by Laura Fine Hawkes, and the musical director is the talented Jack Beetle.

TUTS Underground is dedicated to bringing exciting new musicals to the stage, and they have found a winner in this intermission-less 80-minute drama. It would be easy to fault it for a familiar, overly simple plot, and the absence of songs in a conventional sense, but what it delivers instead is dynamic, engrossing theater, even an operatic ballet that speaks to the truth of passion and the dark needs of humanity.

The verdict:

A sung-through rock musical delivers high impact and exciting performances, as passions flame into sex and light up the stage with energy. It is unusual, but its novelty soars to operatic heights, the movements of the actors echo caged animals, and its power spills over into the aisles. Treat yourself, and see it.

Murder Ballad continues through April 27, TUTS Underground, Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-558-8887 or contact

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Jim Tommaney