Chicago Theatre Review
Killing Softly With Its Song
Murder Ballad – Bailiwick
Tales of murder and passion have always fascinated the public. Songs of revenge have been around for ages. Centuries ago the murder ballad developed as a musical means of recounting real-life crimes committed in the past. These tuneful tributes to the killers and their victims provided entertainment, revived forgotten history and injected a moral message to the stories. The Kingston Trio’s iconic murder ballad, “Tom Dooley,” which sparked the popular folk music coffee house culture of the mid-20th century, opens this production. After the cast provides a musical, obligatory reminder to silence cell phones and not using recording devices, they lead the audience in a sing-along of the familiar “Tom Dooley,” eventually segueing into Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s sung-through, pop rock musical.
This 80-minute show, which began life in a 2012 Manhattan Theatre Club production, is staged similarly in this Chicago premier. The piece is set within a large, open space that places the theatergoer in the middle of the action. Designed by Megan Truscott and lit by Charles Cooper, this environmental setting suggests a seedy downtown saloon, along with two different apartments and a playground in Central Park. Decorated with photos and paintings, the focal point is a functioning bar (providing pre-show refreshments), surrounded by a diversely-used pool table, a small stage for Nicholas Davio’s band, a bed and some tables and chairs for both the cast and some of the audience. Other playgoers are seated on risers. During much of the production, patrons find themselves up-close and personal with the action.
Sara, Tom, Michael and a Narrator, roam freely throughout the playing area, which represents both New York City’s dangerously dicey Lower East Side, as well as a more mundane, Upper West Side respectability. In this steamy, self-conscious, time-honored tale a love triangle emerges and, not surprisingly, we’re reminded that lust can kill. The difference is that this murder ballad is presented for entertainment. The title song/prologue, beautifully sung by the four cast members, calls to mind that while this story’s descended from a long tradition, and that audiences may find the plot familiar, the final moments will offer unexpected surprises.
Director Jim Beaudry’s very physical staging of this musical, while featuring little dancing, is often choreographed, capitalizing on his cast’s graceful flexibility and creating some exquisite poetry in motion. Sasha Smith’s violence design is authentic, yet lyrical. Nicholas Davio’s musical direction is demonstrated in the 20+ solos and close harmonies within the show. The haunting, “I Love NY,” the sensuous “Mouth Tattoo” and heartfelt numbers like “Sugar Cubes & Rock Salt” are all sung with heart and honesty. While the whole score sports a similar sound, the clever and catchy lyrics make this musical especially appealing.
Amanda Horvath’s Sara is the central figure of this story. It’s around her performance that this love triangle revolves. Ms. Horvath is beautiful and sensuous, capturing all the heart, guilt and honesty of a woman whose dissatisfaction with her boring life results in tragedy. Ms. Horvath is a powerhouse singer, particularly in her duets. She’s matched, both by Chris Logan’s dynamic and threatening bad boy Tom, and by Matt W. Miles’ earnest and loving Michael. Both men are very strong actor/singers, with Mr. Logan bringing a threatening animal-like sensuality to his portrayal of the obsessive Tom. Camille Robinson offers her own strength, humor and commanding voice to her omnisciently observing Narrator.
Audiences everywhere throughout time have inexplicably found stories of murder and passion to be captivating. The irresistible draw behind examining man’s darker side, as explored in song, stories and onstage, cannot be denied. In this sung-through musical themes of love, hate, jealousy, betrayal, parental devotion and selfish, personal satisfaction are all explored with economy of time and space. Told with clarity and staged with brisk sensuality and simplicity, Bailiwick offers a feisty, fiercely beautiful production that kills softly with its songs.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 2-May 9 by Bailiwick Chicago on the 3rd floor of the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-969-6201 or by going to www.bailiwickchicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.