Review: Murder Ballad at Stillpointe Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

We all want to touch the flames but not get burned. Stillpointe Theatre is bringing you flaming theatrical reality with their first main stage production of the 2016/2017 season and it isn’t even on their main stage! In the fully exposed in-your-face, at-your-feet, all-around-you production of Murder Ballad, Director Corey Hennessey and Co-Director Amanda J. Rife bring a visceral and emotional biting love-triangle straight to your eyes, ears, and hearts. Ensconced in the grungy rocker atmosphere upstairs at The Ottobar, this edgy obscure musical, with book & lyrics by Julia Jordan and music & lyrics by Juliana Nash, Murder Ballad transplants the reality of New York City live by way of Charles Village into plain sight, heartache, heartbreak, murder and all.

(L to R) Cody Raum, Nick Jewett, Joe Pipkin, and Trevor Shipley playing the pit for Murder Ballad
(L to R) Cody Raum, Nick Jewett, Joe Pipkin, and Trevor Shipley playing the pit for Murder Ballad Amanda N. Gunther

Production Design team members include the company’s Artistic Director Ryan Haase, as well as company members Danielle Robinette and Zoe Kanter. The aesthetic to the show in both the simplicity of the costumes and limited use of props aligns perfectly with the coarse texture of the music, lyrics, and overall verve of the show. Musical Director Nick Jewett, who also leads the live four-person pit on guitar, finds a strong balance in the acoustically off-putting venue, enabling the music to translate well against the openness of the space. Tucked away in a corner, Jewett and the band— composed of Cody Raum on bass, Trevor Shipley on keys, and Joe Pipkin on drums— give a thrilling sense of liveliness to the show, keeping perfect pace with the musical’s four performers.

Director Corey Hennessey showcases a fine working knowledge of both the musical and the intimate upstairs venue of The Ottobar. For those unfamiliar with Murder Ballad, part of its initial appeal was that it was original staged in a bar to give theatergoers the immersive experience of being among the story as it unfolds— life imitating art imitating and then becoming life. Hennessey and Co-Director Amanda J. Rife lay an exacting plot of movement for the four performers that keeps them twined around one another as well as the audience throughout the performance. While there is a central space with booths, the characters meander to and from locations and often find themselves in isolation either at the edge of one bar space or in a corner with a pool table. This creates an inviting reality for the audience to exist inside the lives of their story.

Director Corey Hennessy as The Narrator in Murder Ballad
Director Corey Hennessy as The Narrator in Murder Ballad Rob Clatterbuck

Hennessey’s decision to appropriate gender-blind casting across the four roles appears to be based solely on talent. There is no question as to whether or not the performers— himself included— are vocally and emotionally suited for the roles. Focusing instead on the emotional integrity and expression of the songs, Hennessey leaves gender, despite the script’s identification thereof through names and pronouns— out of the love triangle, which creates a unique and thoroughly enjoyable experience across the board. The blocking is crisp, the moments of tension both palpable and convincing, and the show’s overall drive coming from an earnest place of intensity both vocally and emotionally. Higher praises are due still for Hennessey’s use of the show’s scripted baseball bat. Rarely if ever leaving his hands, the bat becomes a symbolic representation of force, one that his character— the narrator of sorts— uses to manipulate the performance, furthering the depth of meta-experience that these performers-turned-characters experience.

As the narrative figure, Hennessey is haunting; he delivers a striking stage presence that even at times pulls the eye’s attention from those singing just to watch his facial responses and reactions to what is happening. Vocally sound with an impressive range, Hennessey delivers a glistening mellifluous calliope of song as he surges into the top end of his upper register during “The Crying Scene.” With an unnerving ability to disturb the other performers into action, there’s an element of ‘The Punisher’ in his overall character portrayal, especially when he slings the bat about as if it were an extension of his inner turmoil loosed into physical form. Emotionally sophisticated when he joins in the harmonies of the show’s numerous trios and quartets, Hennessey exudes a vocal quality that carries his portion of the show nearly flawlessly.

Moira Horowitz (left) as Michael and Sarah Heiderman (right) as Sara in Murder Ballad
Moira Horowitz (left) as Michael and Sarah Heiderman (right) as Sara in Murder Ballad Rob Clatterbuck

The emotional threads of this show unravel and tangle, unwind and jumble sublimely amidst the vocal clarity of these four performers. With Sarah Heiderman as Sara, Moira Horowitz as Michael, and Amber Wood as Tom, there is no room for doubt when it comes to impressive talent on the stage in this production. Horowitz, whose character starts off in an almost timid and tender state, develops an unfathomable depth of anger as the play progresses, all of which comes to a brutal head in “Answer Me”, which showcases not only her ability to belt but her emotional grounding in the character’s mindset. As strong of voice as the other three performers, Horowitz holds her own in the role of Michael, giving moment after memorable moment of raw emotions coming from deep within her core.

Amber Wood, as tough-guy Tom, unveils a new layer of revolting when it comes to the obsession of spurned love. As gritty as the space surrounding them, Wood levels into the character with teeth bared and an emotionally abrasive approach to her songs. “Mouth Tattoo” is one of several duets featuring Wood with Sarah Heiderman that strikes a chord for those who have been in the vicious cycle of love the which of these two share. With her ability to blend and harmonize being quite strong, Wood finds moments during several of the trio and quartet numbers that allow her voice to balance the others in a hypnotic fashion.

Amber Wood (left) as Tom and Sarah Heiderman (right) as Sara in Murder Ballad
Amber Wood (left) as Tom and Sarah Heiderman (right) as Sara in Murder Ballad Rob Clatterbuck

Heiderman, who finds herself emotionally charged and overflowing from the word go, is equally matched among the quartet of performers. Able to belt, sustain, and carry her songs as well as the other three, she finds a comfortable niche of perpetual upheaval in which to lay the roots for her character’s ultimate struggles. “My Name”, one of the more poignant duets with the Tom character, showcases the heavy hand of raw vulnerability with which Heiderman imbues the character of Sara. There is a commonality shared among the cast, which seems to stem from Heiderman’s portrayal of Sara, of unabashed rawness when it comes to their overall expressivity.

The experience of the show is unlike any that’s been witnessed in the Baltimore theatre scene in quite some time. A site-specific musical is on par for Stillpointe Theatre’s bold and adventurous approach to the craft. With the talent and overall outlook of the production, this one is one for the books and should not be missed.  

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission

Murder Ballad plays through September 17, 2016 with Stillpointe Theatre upstairs in The Ottobar— 2549 N. Howard Street in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online. Advance reservations are recommended as seating is limited.

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