May 25, 2013

"Murder Ballard" and "Bull" Are the Lastest to Get Up Close and Personal with Audiences

For years now, the sociologist Richard Florida has been preaching that young people in what he calls the creative class don’t want to just sit back and be fed their culture, they want to get all up in it.  And now it seems that theater producers are taking heed. For the most buzzed about shows of the past couple of months have, in one way or another, followed this formula:

•Hire a comely cast of young actors (see above)
•Put them in a musical with a rock-inflected score.  
•Stir in a some melodrama and a little bit of sex. 
•Make the audience a part of the action

 •Spike the mixture with booze (optional).
And voilà you’ve got Here Lies Love, the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim disco musical about Imelda Marcos that is packing them in down at the Public Theater  (click here to see my review)  or Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, the electro-pop adaptation of a segment of “War and Peace,” that I talked about on Wednesday (click here for my review of it).

Now come Murder Ballad, the love-gone-wrong rock musical that opened at Union Square Theatre this week and, to a lesser extent, Bull, the non-singing but still we're-all-in-this-together drama about office politics that’s playing through June 2 as part of the Brits off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters.

Murder Ballad had an earlier run at Manhattan Theatre Club that drew mixed reviews but struck the right chord with New York Times critic Ben Brantley, which probably played a large part in its move downtown. I think the thing that turned off the other critics is that the show is basically just another riff on the old “Frankie and Johnny” story about cheating lovers. 
The main lovers in this version are the can’t-live-with-‘em-can’t-live-without-‘em couple Sara and Tom. When they break up soon after the show begins, Sara meets, marries and tries to build a life with nice guy Michael. Then, as the character called the Narrator tells us, Sara bumps into and starts an affair with Tom and all hell begins to break loose.

The music for this 80-minute, sung-through melodrama was composed by Juliana Nash, the frontwoman for the '90s band Talking to Animals, who also co-wrote the lyrics with the show’s book writer Julia Jordan. 

I can’t honestly say that I remember any of the songs but I had a good time listening to them while I was there and it is great fun to see women proving that they can write rock music just as hard charging as the next leather-panted guy.
The cast doesn’t hold back either. Will Swenson usually strikes me as a self-conscious performer, never really at ease in the skin of whatever character he's portraying but that quality works perfectly for the insecure Tom. Plus Swenson is dandy eye candy.  Meanwhile, John Ellison Conlee is winningly sympathetic as the cuckolded Michael.
But it’s the women who really rock. Rebecca Naomi Jones’ bad-girl sexiness and powerhouse pipes make the Narrator the most charismatic onstage storyteller since the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret  (click here to read an interview with her). 

And Caissie Levy brings a leavening touch of innocence to Sara’s wantonness. Levy also deserves kudos for getting up to speed with her cast mates after being called in to take over the role from Karen Olivo who played Sara in the earlier production (click here to read about how Levy pulled it off). 
The real star of the show, though, is director Trip Cullum's hip staging, which turns part of the theater into the dive bar that Tom owns (the rest of the audience sits in a horseshoe around the playing area). Cullum has the actors weaving in and out of the tables, sometimes singing directly to audience members and even jumping up on a table or two. 

Doug Varone’s choreography goes all out too. And special shout-outs must also go to lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Leon Rothenberg for keeping all the goings-on so visible and audible.
Murder Ball may not be a great show but it's not a bad way to spend an evening. There’s even full drinks service at the onstage bar before and after the show. But take my advice and skip the house white wine, which is icky sweet and goes for $8 for a quarter-filled cup.

There are no drinks or love ballads at Bull, playwright Mike Bartlett’s companion piece to Cock, his play about a man torn between his longtime male partner and a woman he meets.  Cock was one of the best shows I saw last year. I can tell you now that Bull won't make this year's list but it, too, makes the audience members a part of the action.

The Bull audience is arrayed around a boxing ring, some, like my theatergoing buddy Bill and me, on bleacher-like seats, the rest standing close enough to touch the transparent barrier that encloses the space. Inside, the action unfolds over 55 fast-paced minutes, as two junior execs relentlessly goad and bully a third.

The four-member British cast (the workers and their late-arriving boss) is superb and director Clare Lizzimore keeps the tension at a high-testosterone level reminiscent of Neil LaBute ‘s early work.
Bull lacks the emotional impact of Cock. But it seems to be scoring with the alpha-male crowd. A quintet of guys good-looking enough to pass for a rock band stood in front of Bill and me.  They shifted around for better views, laughed loudly and punched one another in the arm to signal their appreciation of a good jab at Bull’s victim.  They didn’t climb into the ring but they were all up in its action.


Chris Caggiano said...

Jan, a very interesting observation, but I'm pretty sure you mean Murder Ballad instead of Murder Ball.

Hope all is well.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for pointing out the goof, Chris. It's always humbling to be reminded why writers need copy editors.