Encore Michigan

‘Murder Ballad’ rocks the house with steamy murder mystery

Review April 08, 2019 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR – The first song in Penny Seats Theatre Company’s one-act rock opera Murder Ballad sets the stage: Somebody’s going to die.

Some 80 minutes later, three crazed people embroiled in a lover’s triangle descend on a Manhattan bar. Each is mad enough to kill. Each could easily become the victim.

You’ll have to see this superb show to find out who dies, how they die, and who’s responsible.

I will tell you that the murder weapon hides in plain sight for the entire 85-minute show.

Murder Ballad  has an explosive rock ‘n’ roll score with music and written by Juliana Nash and performed by a live band. The four actors in the play all have powerful voices that lure you in and make you care. Staging the play at Hathway’s Hideaway, with it’s beautiful oak bar in the background, is effective. One doesn’t feel like he or she is watching this murder mystery; one feels like a witness to an actual homicide. It feels that intense.

Kudos to Director Matthew Pecek, Set Designer Stephen Hankes, and the rest of the cast and crew for creating an immersion theatre experience in a very narrow space that only has room for about 45 spectators. 

Music Director Brian Buckner’s (2018 Wilde Award Winner) band did justice to Nash’s vigorous score despite cramped conditions. Guitarist Joshua Thorington has to play standing in a tight corner. Bassist Josef Deas performs sitting atop a tall refrigerator.

The story, conceived by Julia Jordan, is a fairly routine betrayal. Sara (Monica Spencer) has a robust affair with bad boy Tom (David Moan), her boss and the bar.

After they break up, Sara literally throws herself at Michael (Mike Sandusky), a poet who is respectable and “safe.” They marry, have a daughter, and live a cushy life in New York City’s Upper West Side.

But Sara eventually grows restless as her daughter grows. Bored, she reconnects with Tom and there’s a hormonal heyday – right on the bar. Their sordid affair rekindles afternoons while the child is in school and Michael is at work at New York University.

The lie begins to fold in on Sara when her daughter gets sick at school, and neither school staff nor Michael can locate Sara.

She hopes that all will be forgiven and forgotten as the daughter’s health returns. But Tom turns up in the park where Sara and Michael are pushing their daughter on a swing, and the affair is revealed. By the intensity of emotion, we know someone is going to get hurt. Permanently.

In true opera form, Murder Ballad has no spoken dialogue. Instead, we have a singing Narrator, expertly played by Maya Gangadaran, whose verses knit the plot together and pull it forward. Songs performed by the characters Sara, Tom and Michael have a rock structure and style with a throbbing beat and repeating choruses.

The murder scene is the highlight of this excellent show. Drummer Justin Sherman deserves high praise for escalating the drama. And Gangadaran’s sultry narration is award-worthy.

This show has themes that are not kid-appropriate. Adults of all ages will love it, though. I promise.

Hathaway’s Hideaway is at 310 S. Ashley Street. Because it’s a small space and the show is sure to be popular, reserving tickets in advance is highly recommended.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Week of 6/17/2019

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