When I went: 3 October 2016
Location: Arts Theatre, London
Performers: Kerry Ellis (Sara), Ramin Karimloo (Tom), Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Narrator), Norman Bowman (Michael)
Creative team: Julia Jordan (book and lyrics), Juliana Nash (music and lyrics), Soundcheck Productions (producer), Sam Yates (director), Richard Kent (set design and costume design), Sean Green (musical director)
Approximate price: £50
Special points: Killer vocals, rock edge
Best bit: ‘Sara’
If I could change one thing: Sharper lyrics
Murder Ballad began as a critically acclaimed off-Broadway production. It is unusual and welcome these days to see a ‘new’ musical which is neither a revival of a classic nor a jukebox musical. The rock edge in Juliana Nash’s score and the costumes recall parts of Rock of Ages, but Julia Jordan’s story, which focuses on three characters and a narrator tracking their love/lust triangle to the conclusion of a murder, has shades of Chicago, with less comedy. This musical is sung-through so there isn’t any spoken dialogue to speak of, but there is plenty of grit and a convincing if basic portrayal of mundane modern life and the most obvious divisions in New York society.
Unfortunately, while the music is good enough to enjoy in the moment (if not memorable enough to get you humming it on the way home) and the book, while focusing on old tropes, is interesting enough to hold your interest throughout this short 80-minute work, the lyrics are not really sharp enough and at times can be a little distracting.
I was keen to see the London production partly because of my soft spot for rock music and partly because of my admiration for previous performances of Kerry Ellis (in Oliver!, and my partner Owl had seen her as Elphaba in Wicked), Ramin Karimloo (in Phantom and Love Never Dies) and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (in A Chorus Line and In the Heights). I had never seen Norman Bowman before, but neither he nor any of the others disappointed; their vocals were spot on and their acting never wavered, even with fairly exposing material to deal with.
Soundcheck Productions’ production arm was apparently launched to find roles for Kerry Ellis, and in the part of Sara she has the opportunity to be conflicted, sexy, liberated and trapped at different points. Sara and the Narrator are probably more interesting characters than the men, who are quite one-dimensional. The audience roots for Sara to be happy, even though the love/lust triangle is really only maintained due to her actions. Kerry Ellis’ range and performance abilities make the most out of the music.
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s smoky voice is shown off nicely in the role of the enigmatic Narrator, who also stands in for the background characters at various points – including Frankie, Sara and Michael’s child, and the girlfriend of Tom. Her musical monologues also anchor the plot and provide brief explanations where needed. Her character is probably the most difficult to play and Victoria’s performance is one of the best and most engaging things about this production.
Ramin Karimloo gets to display his (undeniably magnetic) body and acting in the role of Tom, the sexier and more ‘rough’ of Sara’s lovers, if not his full vocal abilities which were demonstrated more completely in Love Never Dies. The chemistry between Ramin’s Tom and Kerry’s Sara sizzles enough that Sara’s dilemma in deciding between him and her family (and by proxy, the old and new Saras) is a convincing one, and the passion between them does not feel forced even though they have little time in the production to make this come across. The actors show no inhibition in scenes which are more explicitly sexy than the norm in London musicals.
Norman Bowman has less to do in the role of the steadier Michael but again his vocals are great and he injects enough menace into his confrontation with Tom and Sara towards the end to ramp up the denouement.
The staging is simple but effective, with use of rotations onstage, sharp-edged plots and arty pictures projected through a screen to provide a window into some of the characters’ inner thoughts. The best example of this is in ‘So Sophisticated’, where the Narrator sarcastically describes Tom and Sara’s affair as like a French film while it is obvious that it is actually a lot more obvious and tawdry.
Overall, I enjoyed this musical but the lyrics (and some of the songs) held it back from becoming a better and more memorable work.