Wilbury’s Murder Ballad Belts Out a Burning Tale of Love, Sex and Betrayal

Photo credit: Annie Hall

Photo credit: Annie Hall

With Murder Ballad, The Wilbury Theatre Group’s latest in-your-face rock musical, set designer Josh Christofferson has dressed down their Broad Street space to create the bare bones King’s Club, a dark, back alley bar that brings one right back to the old club days when Living Room, One Up and Rocket ruled Providence night life. For those of you who were not children of that era, these were the bars where black motorcycle jackets were the dress code, strippers let loose after hours, and local bands hung out before and after gigs. You name it and you could find it there – a date, a pool game, a hard drink or something even harder, if that was your thing.

From the moment the first guitar riff rings out and our leather clad platinum blonde Narrator (Moira Costigan-Carraher) hits the stage with her blood red lips pursed in a scowl, we can see that Murder Ballad is taking us into dangerous territory. Murder Ballad, an off-Broadway hit written in 2012 by playwright Julia Jordan with a sung-through rock score by Juliana Nash, is a showcase of searing rock songs that require range — both emotional and vocal – from its ensemble of four. Director Wendy Overly has brought together some terrific singer/actors who not only nail the show’s edgy-rock style, but carry the show’s emotional arc to the bloody end.

The company gives us a brief run-down of what is to come, with the not-so-subtle warning that “there’s always a killer … so logically someone has to die.” No punches pulled here, they are dead serious and over the next 75 minutes, we’ll see just who gives (and gets) theirs in the end.

True to the theater’s description of the tale as “A love triangle gone wrong…” Murder Ballad’s mysterious Narrator introduces us to Sara played by Jess Andra, all long auburn hair, short shorts and bad girl attitude. She’s hot and heavy with bar-owner Tom (Rudy Sanda), a force to behold on stage in ripped jeans, well-worn “Mother Love Bone” tee and just drenched in bad boy swagger. They party, “drink each other’s secrets in,” and have passionate sex under the NYC skyline.

Soon things go sour and the two sexual soul mates split. Sara drunkenly (albeit literally) falls into the arms of straighter-than-straight Michael (played by an endearing Wyndham Maxwell.) He’s a khaki-clad PhD who shows her kindness and understanding — something we really haven’t seen much of yet from anyone else in the play. Maxwell seems a bit young for the role, but his singing voice is impressive and his boyishness is quite charming. That one night together soon becomes many, and the action jumps ahead quickly. They marry. Have a baby. Move to the Upper West Side. It’s “adulting” at its best.

Andra handles the changes in the character deftly and soon the bad girl we met before is gone. The Sara we see now is more contained, graceful and obviously smitten with their new life and baby girl. Soon worries turn to school tuition, future plans and financial responsibilities. They argue. Things become routine and eventually mundane. Five years pass and we find Sara sitting in her apartment alone, under the covers, wondering aloud where did her life go.

As the Narrator, Costigan-Carraher must act as cypher, storyteller, and set mover, providing us just enough information to set each scene – and giving us her uncensored opinions on where the story is going. The actress attacks the role with vigor and darkens her usually crystal clear voice to add a surprisingly rough edge to the songs. Throughout the show there is the gnawing question of just what the Narrator’s role is in all of this – is she imaginary? A stand-in for the authors? Or someone more directly involved in the story? What’s her deal?

Soon Sara, seeking some semblance of her past self, reignites things with her lost love Tom. The chemistry between the two lovers is palpable, and their duets are solid, as their passion reignites to a fever pitch that will eventually be their downfall.

Nothing that passionate can remain hidden forever, and all murder mysteries — or ballads — need to have a surprise ending. Thanks to director Wendy Overly’s keen eye and sense of kinetic motion, the tension never lets up. Costume designer Erin Meghan Donnelly has created thoughtful pieces for each character, with a strong emphasis on what made ’90s grunge sexy. Kudos to Sanda who also acted as fight choreographer. I love nothing more than a well-staged fight that is full on, up to speed, complete with forceful finesse.

Music director Courtney Swain does double duty on keyboards with the rock solid duo of Chris Bryant on guitar and Lewis Davis on drums. While the band rocks it and the four actors are very strong singers, the acoustics in the space are not ideal, which often made for difficulty making out lyrics and thereby plot points. It wasn’t until I looked up the libretto online that I got a better sense of the poetry of the lyrics.

While not for everyone (my mom and anyone under the age of 15 immediately come to mind…) I thoroughly enjoyed Wilbury Group’s production on many levels – for it’s sense of sexy, edgy mystery; how it fed my nostalgia for booze-filled nights at loud dirty clubs; and yes, even a realistic look at what can happen when you wake up and find you’ve “grown up” into a different person.

Doesn’t everyone need to dust off those Doc Martens once in a while and toss back their hair in a dive bar? I know I’m gonna’.

Murder Ballad, book by Julia Jordan and music by Juliana Nash, directed by Wendy Overly continues through April 30 at The Wilbury Theatre Group, 393 Broad Street, Providence. Tickets for sale online at thewilburygroup.org. Limited on-stage seating is also available (which I would definitely recommend for the best bang for your buck) by calling  401-400-7100 or emailing the box office at tickets@thewilburygroup.org.

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