A little sex, a little violence, a lot of innuendo go into the musical “Murder Ballad,” onstage at West of Lenin through Nov. 13.
Got a case of bloodlust? “Murder Ballad,” a one-act musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, has what you crave — and it won’t judge you for it.
After all, who doesn’t love a little death and destruction in their fiction? The very existence of the murder ballad predates recorded music, and humanity has invented plenty of violent ends for fictional characters since then.
Calling your show “Murder Ballad” stacks it up against the best of the genre — do you really want to be compared to the chilling imagery of Lead Belly’s rendition of “In the Pines” or Nick Cave’s sneeringly mordant take on “Stagger Lee” or the fevered elegance of Neko Case’s “Dirty Knife”?
Book and lyrics by Julie Jordan. Music and lyrics by Juliana Nash. Through Nov. 13, at West of Lenin, 203 N 36th St., Seattle; $20-$50 (sidecountrytheatre.org).
Julie Jordan and Juliana Nash’s sung-through musical doesn’t have that kind of presence, with a pop-rock score from Nash that mostly sounds like filler you’d hear on a corporate-owned “alternative” radio station.
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A little sex, a little violence, a lot of innuendo — the glossy surfaces of “Murder Ballad” are more reminiscent of a tame episode of “CSI” than an enduring archetypal folk tale.
Its efficiency — about 75 minutes straight through — gives it energy, though, and director Billie Wildrick keeps the momentum humming in Sidecountry Theatre’s production, the company’s first since its debut in 2014, a likable staging of “Passing Strange.”
The four actors slink through the audience in an immersive setup that does its best to transform West of Lenin’s open auditorium space into a bar-like configuration, with tables scattered among rows of chairs.
Within the first five minutes, Sara (Naomi Morgan) has fallen in love and broken up with bartender boyfriend Tom (Jordan Iosua Taylor), then moved uptown and married ultrarespectable Michael (Nick Watson), and in a snap, they have a daughter in kindergarten. Like I said, efficient.
Guiding the proceedings is an all-knowing narrator (Sara Henley-Hicks), who lays the portent on thick. “There’s always a killer, so logically someone has to die,” she informs in the opening number.
Sara’s desires burn hot and fast, and soon the creeping boredom of domestic bliss has led her to rekindle an affair with Tom. The actors’ encounters are credibly steamy, bathed in the stark lighting design of Alyssa Milione, though Jordan and Nash’s lyrics of longing can be more awkward than evocative. (For instance: “A kiss like a mouth tattoo burns in me and I don’t know what I’ll do.”)
Morgan and Henley-Hicks are both excellent singers, with powerful voices that easily command the compact space. The men’s voices aren’t quite as consistently supported, though all four sound quite nice blended together.
Like any cheap mystery, the pleasure in “Murder Ballad” isn’t so much the journey as the destination. One can enjoy the hackneyed love-triangle theatrics precisely because there’s a corpse and a killer waiting to be revealed at the end of them.
Despite a little meta-theatrical kink at the climax, “Murder Ballad” doesn’t have lofty aspirations beyond that reveal. Good thing. This material would never have supported them.
With a sinister twinkle of humor the show could’ve used more of, the finale sums it up: “That’s entertainment — until it happens to you.”