This isn’t a standard musical. The small-scale, sung-through offering isn’t charming, nor does it feature big, fake smiles, happily dancing feet and wistful love songs. The story is pretty much a cliché: Sexy Sarah has a passionate relationship with bar owner Tom. They break up. She finds solace and marital stability with gentle, responsible Michael, who once wanted to be a poet but, mindful of his role as husband and then father, dutifully acquires his MBA and a regular job. The couple, with their child, Frankie, live a peaceful, stable life in an Upper West Side apartment. But then, bored with the routine of daily life, Sarah finds her way back to Tom’s brawny arms. The story of a woman torn between a masculine stud and a kindly husband is a staple of every kind of genre, from cheap romance novels to Westerns to folk — uh-huh, consider the title — ballads. Opera, too (“I love you, Porgy. Don’t let him take me. Don’t let him handle me, with his hot hands....”). What makes this show electric is the knowledge conveyed by the title and confirmed early on by the Narrator that someone is going to die — which means we spend the entire evening in a state of mild titillation, wondering who. Will Tom kill Michael or Michael Tom? Will one of them kill faithless Sarah? Or perhaps Sarah, trapped, will turn on one of the guys.
While the three lovers wallow in passionate song about their emotions, the Narrator provides the thread that keeps things going, as well as an ironic commentary that reminds you that this is a story; it also lets you know that writer Julia Jordan and composer Juliana Nash knew exactly what they were doing when they created Murder Ballad. The Narrator seems a metaphorical figure, a mocking gremlin rather than an actual woman, though we eventually learn that she is flesh and blood. She’s faintly Brechtian, and highly reminiscent of Cabaret’s amoral Emcee — except that where the context for all the nasty goings-on at Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub is the decadence of Weimar Germany, there’s no wider focus or significant context here. The attention is tight on the lovers’ frantic, sexy wrigglings. The running time is just 85 minutes, the space is so intimate that we all seem to be breathing the same air, and even though the characters have little depth and the plot is obvious, the raucous, high-energy (though far from memorable) score propels us from moment to moment.
The cast is terrific. Robert Michael Sanders is a steady, caring Michael, low-key through the early scenes but full of thrilling passion when the worm finally turns. Kent Randell is a lithe, sexy Tom. There’s pretty much nothing Shannan Steele can’t do on a stage, though she rarely has roles that let her prove that — so it’s a joy to see her striding in thigh-high black boots and gorgeously singing her burdened heart out. She communicates not only Sarah’s willful sexuality, but also her profound grief and regret when the inevitable moment of reckoning arrives. The last time I saw Mary McGroary, who plays the Narrator, she was in a small role in a 2006 production of Cabaret. Where has she been since? This woman has a great voice, an offbeat humor and a wonderfully snaky presence.
Yaconis deserves all kinds of kudos for his casting. Also for the fact that he, along with musical director Jason Tyler Vaughn and sound designers Kenny Storms and Tom Quinn, have fitted the music so perfectly to the venue. The dynamics are fluid. The sound is loud enough to get your blood pumping, but not so loud that you have to put your fingers in your ears. And after years of huge black spiders hanging from the faces of so many musical performers, how perfect that the mikes here are well-calibrated and almost invisible. Most of all, Yaconis deserves credit for a willingness to challenge himself and experiment, in the process presenting some of the most intriguing work around to local audiences.
Murder Ballad, presented by Edge Theater Company Friday, Saturday and Sunday through September 25, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.