The new one-act Off-Broadway rock musical Murder Ballad has opened to mixed reviews. The creative team includes Julia Jordan (book, lyrics), Juliana Nash (lyrics, music), Trip Cullman (direction), Doug Varone (choreography), Mark Wendland (sets), Jessica Pabst (costumes), Ben Stanton (lights), Leon Rothenberg (sound), and Justin Levine (music direction, orchestrations). The cast includes John Ellison Conlee (Michael), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Narrator), Karen Olivo (Sara) and Will Swenson (Tom).
Ben Brantley (N.Y. Times): Murder Ballad is a welcome oddity among recent musicals. It’s a show that knows exactly what it wants to do, and then does it, with no apologizing or backtracking. And as staged with inventive efficiency by Trip Cullman and performed by a top-flight cast of four, Murder Ballad is also self-conscious in just the right way. … Mark Wendland has transformed the MTC Studio at Stage II into a seedy Manhattan boîte (luridly lighted by Ben Stanton), with a long bar, tables and chairs, a pool table and a small stage for the (very loud) band. … Yes, you’ve probably heard it all before, the songs and the story. But familiarity is the point of Murder Ballad. And there’s one thing you won’t know until the last few of this show’s fast 80 minutes: Who gets it, and who done it.
Suzy Evans (Back Stage): What Nash and Jordan have written is essentially an almost plotless song cycle. But thanks to director Trip Cullman’s aggressive, almost interactive staging … the likes of Will Swenson, Karen Olivo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and John Ellison Conlee may end up at your table, in your face, or on your lap. … Swenson, Olivo, Jones, and Conlee have never sung better, and Nash’s tunes fit their voices like a glove, aided by Justin Levine’s impeccable vocal arrangements. … Not everyone will love the lack of a fourth wall. The Sunday matinee crowd seemed a little bit put off by the cast’s antics and nervous about the proximity of fight scenes. But I can’t imagine what the show is like at the 9 p.m. performance. The energy is electric.
Melissa Maerz (Entertainment Weekly): The best thing about Murder Ballad is that all of this dive-bar drama takes place inside what feels like an actual bar. As you walk into Manhattan Theater Club’s Studio at Stage II, there’s a rock band on stage, and you have to maneuver around a pool table to get to your seat. … The whole thing genuinely feels like a show at a tiny Lower East Side club. And it sounds like a show at a tiny club, too. … Both Olivo and Jones would make phenomenal frontwomen in any band. Olivo doesn’t so much sing the lyrics as take a shot of tequila and blowtorch them. And for a musical about New York’s downtown bar scene, that’s a very good thing. There’s only one problem with the music: It’s much better than the story. … The ending might be a surprise, but what leads up to it isn’t.
Andy Propst (Theater Mania): It’s an intoxicating downtown-style environment from scenic designer Mark Wendland (and lit to perfection by Ben Stanton) – and, sadly, the only aspect of this production that fully succeeds. Jordan’s book sketchily outlines the essentials for the entangled relationships. … To their credit, the performers belt out Nash’s music with electrifying power. … Trip Cullman’s staging, which uses every inch of the space, has an undeniable intensity, and choreographer Doug Varone’s dances possess a sinuousness that is concurrently sensual and sad. Ultimately, however, their efforts fail to make these characters little more than combustible clichés.