Encore Michigan

It ain’t your mother’s (murder) musical at DPT

Review October 02, 2016 Donald V. Calamia

In a recent interview published in The Detroit News, Detroit Public Theatre co-founder Courtney Burkett discussed the type of theatergoer who attended the company’s successful and much-talked-about inaugural season. “They tend to be really open to us doing sophisticated work and doing challenging work,” she said, and that certainly describes the aptly titled Murder Ballad that opened DPT’s sophomore season Friday evening and mesmerized the crowd into almost total silence from start to finish.

Told as a “sung-through” musical in which there’s barely a hint of spoken dialogue, the production’s basic premise is revealed in its opening number – a prologue of sorts. “Listen and I’ll tell a tale, a tale where good does not prevail. A King, a Queen, a Club, a Knave: One is destined for the grave,” the Narrator sings. (If that’s not clear enough, a baseball bat helps emphasize what’s to come.) And so for the next 75 minutes, the others on stage—one woman, two men—jump into character and begin to peel away the many juicy layers of their familiar but freshly told tale.

It begins, as many such stories do, with a boy and a girl. Sara (played by Detroit newcomer Arianna Bergamaschi) is a musician in New York City looking for that one big (but ever-elusive) break. She’s in an intense relationship with Tom (Rusty Mewha), a handsome and equally unsuccessful actor – the “bad boy” type mothers warn their daughters about. But after three years, Sara leaves Tom, and in a drunken walkabout, she bumps into Michael (Eric Gutman), a Ph.D. poetry student, who safely accompanies her home.

Flash forward a decade. Sara and Michael are married and living on the Upper West Side with a young daughter. Tom has given up the Great White Way to become the owner of a popular club downtown. But for Sara, the routine of married life gets to be too much, and depression sets in. And with that comes a longing for her former downtown party days and the sexy man who brought excitement into her life. A phone call later, and Sara’s once stable existence is thrown into turmoil from which her life and marriage may never recover.

Remember: Someone dies. But I won’t say who. Or by whom. You’ll have to see the show yourself for the stunning answers.

But that’s not the only reason to see Murder Ballad.

Since its inception last fall, Detroit Public Theatre has earned its reputation as a producer of quality professional theater by staging challenging, adult fare with superior production values. Performers and musicians have been top notch; direction, design and technical work have been superb; and the performance space has been well utilized. (For accuracy sake, however, I must note that DPT’s first show—although entertaining and enjoyable—was not as impressive a debut as I expected, nor did it portend the excellence that was to follow.) As a result of its fine work, the company earned five 2016 Wilde Award nominations and one win, an unusual feat for a brand new company.

Murder Ballad, which premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Studio at Stage II in 2012, not only continues the trend DPT set for itself last season, but builds upon it.

Unlike other musicals that drop a dozen or so songs into a traditionally told story, creators Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash took a genre of music popular since at least the 17th century—the murder ballad, in which the lyrics provide the details of a murder—and built an entire show around it. And they did so by updating it to yet another genre, which began gaining in popularity in the late 1960s, the rock opera. As such, the narrative must flow entirely from the lyrics; spoken words are rare. And for the most part, Jordan and Nash succeed quite well in crafting “dialogue” that not only moves the story forward in a clear and concise manner, but also sheds light on each character’s innermost thoughts and motivations. (I realize it’s not easy coming up with 80-minutes’ worth of dramatic lyrics, but I chuckled to myself a few times over some of the word pairings and stanzas. They can’t all be gems!)

The authors truly excel, however, in updating what can often be a stale plot by giving it a contemporary flavor, one that many adults today may recognize in themselves or in others they know (excluding that whole murder thing, of course). The result is a delicious recipe, ripe for the touch of a skilled director who knows how to mix the necessary ingredients into a tasty whole. And Burkett certainly did just that.

Teamed with set designer extraordinaire Monika Essen, Burkett places the action in Tom’s bar which doubles as every other location needed to tell the story. With the audience sitting on three sides of the stage, and much of the action taking place mere inches away, the immersive experience brings everyone into the story. No longer are we casual observers; instead, we’re silent participants in a story unfolding before us.

And that certainly works in favor of the actors, whose performances allow for the passions and innermost thoughts of their characters to be felt by even those sitting in the still-close-by last row. (Or you can experience the full effect by sitting at one of the tables placed strategically at either end of the pool table.)

Each of Burkett’s actors is a superb singer and performer, and each was flawless on opening night. (Not even a brief cut-off of the amplification system threw them off their game, as there was no noticeable reaction of any kind, other than each simply upped their projection and continued with the song as if nothing happened. And we could hear them just fine!)

For the men, Burkett utilizes the services of two longtime Detroit-area favorites.

Gutman, whose From Broadway to Obscurity last season earned it rave reviews and a Wilde Awards win, excels at playing the “every man” roles, the average guy who always tries to do the right thing. With a solid voice that’s perfect for pretty much any style of music from rock to Broadway, one can’t help but feel Michael’s pain and anger at learning of his wife’s indiscretion. How this “nice guy” channels that energy, though, is especially well played.

The lanky Mewha, on the other hand, oozes sex appeal. Watch him strut across the stage and you’ll understand why Sara is tempted to return to him when life with her husband turns dull and predictable. The show’s path to its inevitable conclusion begins with his song “You Belong to Me.” The sudden foreshadowing it delivers adds new depth to his character, and Mewha’s uncomfortable and disturbing delivery serves the story quite well.

Playing opposite their familiar male counterparts are two fresh faces to the local scene, both of whom I predict will become regulars on the professional stage.

Bergamaschi is a singer, actress and TV personality in Italy, her native country. She came to America in 2009 with her husband, and after attending a DPT show last season, she now finds herself making her U.S. theater debut in the role of Sara. It’s not an easy role, but Bergamaschi’s beautiful voice and acting abilities easily convey the emotional roller coaster on which Sara rides.

And then there’s Crosby, a Detroit-native (who just might be my favorite of the night). Her international experience as a singer of gospel, pop, rock and opera provide her with the chops necessary to handle the complicated music with ease. As the all-knowing, all-seeing Narrator, she’s responsible for moving the story along by filling us in on whatever we need to know in order to follow the story, which she does with a delightful puckishness that helps draw the viewer into the action. (Watch her facial expressions: They reveal more than what the words might indicate.)

A fifth character in the show is the four-piece band seated upstage and under the direction of pianist Jamie Reed. Their flawless work is enhanced by Tim Franquist, who provides the audience with the perfect balance between the musicians and the performers so that each compliments, but never overshadows one over the other. Lights by Cecilia Durbin and costumes by Katherine Nelson are also noteworthy.

So while I suspect the subject matter of Murder Ballad may not be to everyone’s taste, theatergoers who enjoy atypical adult fare slickly served will likely find much to love about the opening act of Detroit Public Theatre’s second season. And it portends yet another year of excellence from a theater I predict will have a long and fruitful run.

Week of 12/10/2018

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