Murder in the Key of E: Elena Colás reviews Murder Ballad

This past Tuesday I made my first trip to the labyrinthine Flat Iron Arts Building for the preview of Murder Ballad, a production of Bailiwick Chicago. The show, conceived with book and lyrics by Julia Jordan, just finished a successful run off-Broadway and premieres here in Chicago under the direction of James Beaudry and Nicholas Davio.

Set designer Megan Truscott built a spacious world in a very small venue. There is the bar, complete with pool table, which functions as an actual bar from the time you walk in until the lights go down. To the left is Tom’s bedroom, where the lack of change in appearance over time works as a funny if unintentional, commentary. Opposite this bedroom, in more ways than one, is another home. The layout created great tension in one particular moment as a betrayal occurs barely two feet from its victim, who is protected only by our suspension of belief as he works uninterrupted at his desk.

Lighting design is often overlooked in the role it plays to shape a performance space. I thought Charles Cooper brought energy and color, in addition to helping guide our attention in moments when there were quite a few things to focus on. I found the sound design to be well balanced for this small space by Patrick Bley. For a play that shows some skin, the black mics might be a little distracting at first, but once you settle into the story you won’t notice them.

When I saw the bar tables set for audience members, I wondered if it would feel integrated or uncomfortable, or if it would distract from the performance. With one selfie and the occasional fingertip grazing a table, the actors chose their interactive moments sparingly. Murder Ballad moved along quickly, so much so that while reviewing my notes I thought it must have been longer. Direction by Beaudry keeps things from feeling too claustrophobic by staging action on multiple levels. He embraces the intimacy of a black box theater without losing the critical distance that allows an audience to separate themselves enough to enjoy the play.

The roles of Sarah, Tom and Michael are well cast, and the actors bring a complexity that balanced out some cliché written into the parts. The bad boy bartender Tom comes to life with the powerful voice and energetic performance of Chris Logan. He and Sarah have a playful, hazardous chemistry. Their sparkling fuse is just long enough to make you forget the stick of dynamite at the other end.

Sarah, played with a great deal of tenderness by Amanda Horvath, has divided her life into two halves that don’t quite make a whole. Her beauty and lightness make it easy to mistake our girl for a simple moth hurtling toward the flame. But Horvath gives the character a sense of unmistakable agency, leaving it to the audience to decide if her actions are choice or chance.

Matt Miles’ Michael is a source of stability in this hectic world, and your sympathy for his tough job is not misplaced. As time passes and this gentle grad student takes on layers of work, parenthood and marriage, the transition resonates in strong physical and vocal work. When his hard-earned world is called into question, he shows us all the rage of a man who has gained strength after years of shouldering burdens, and must decide what to do next.

Here I have to pause and acknowledge Camille Robinson, who employed snark and empathy in equal measure as our fabulous narrator. She slipped in and out of the different worlds with ease, taking command of the space for a swift reality check or stepping just out of view, but never too far from the action. I was especially impressed with “The Crying Scene,” a showcase for her dynamic, round voice. She sharpened the edges of this sultry slow burner with a dry sense of humor. In other moments she gently reminded us of their humanity, lending her voice to a duet or simply letting them have their space.

The music in Murder Ballad, written by Juliana Nash, is ridiculously catchy and the lyrics are so clear that you might forget there is hardly a line of dialogue in the whole show. The ensemble blends together for the title track and the beautiful centerpiece “Built for Longing” which sounds like both a consolation and a warning. We are designed to withstand even the wanting that rocks our world, the song reassured. Which is only fair, because we are creatures doomed to want.

Logan unleashes on a mournful version of “Sarah,” and the two share a fiery duet with “Mouth Tattoo,” which is not a thing I’ve never seen in real life but a pretty accurate description nonetheless. Horvath shows versatility in a lighter, hopeful “Turning Into Beautiful,” a duet with Miles marking the start of her relationship. Songs like “Promises” and “I Love NY” are smartly revived and recycled throughout, taking on a different and often darker meaning depending on their audience.

The show would not have been complete without the fantastic live band, with orchestrations arranged by Justin Levine. They functioned as the soundtrack, set and a fifth character all at once, and I would have hung out at the bar to keep listening. With their help, the energy in the room did not drop an inch from the opening number to the last call, an impressive feat after 75 straight minutes of singing on top of beds and pool tables.

Murder Ballad is told with the kind of sincerity that might make you shiver if it grazes your own life, however briefly, and chuckle with relief when it zooms off in the other direction. The raucous fun and the winding arcs of the characters will keep you entertained until the very last second. And without giving anything away, because I really urge you to go see this for yourself, I think you will find that the most riveting roles are the ones you didn’t even know you were watching.

Murder Ballad runs from April 2 to May 9 at the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are available at http://www.bailiwickchicago.com